Facebook Headquarters

Facebook is Being Creepy Again, But They Didn’t Have to be.

In the now decade long history of Facebook we’ve had numerous scandals around the ideas of privacy and what Facebook should and should not be doing with the data they have on us. For the most part I’ve tended to side with Facebook as whilst I share everyone’s concerns use of the platform is voluntary in nature and should you highly object to what they’re doing you’re free to not use them. The fact is that any service provided to you free of charge needs to make revenue somewhere and for Facebook that comes from your data. However this doesn’t seem to stop people from being outraged at something Facebook does with almost clockwork regularity, the most recent of which was tinkering with people’s feeds to see if emotions could spread like the plague.

Facebook HeadquartersThe results are interesting as they show that emotions can spread through social networks without the need for direct interaction, it can happen by just reading status updates. The experimenters sought to verify this by manipulating the news feeds of some 689,000 Facebook users to skew the emotional content in one direction and then saw how the user’s emotional state fared further down the line. The results confirmed their initial hypothesis showing that emotions expressed on Facebook can spread to others. Whilst it’s not going to cause a pandemic of ecstasy or sudden whirlwind of depression cases worldwide the evidence is there to suggest that your friend’s sentiment on Facebook does influence your own emotional state.

Whilst it’s always nice to get data that you can draw causal links from (like with this experiment) I do wonder why they bothered to do this when they could’ve done much more in depth analysis on a much larger subset of the data. They could have just as easily taken a much larger data set, classified it in the same way and then done the required analysis. This somewhat sneaks around the rather contentious issue of informed consent when it comes to experiments like this as there’s no indication that Facebook approached these individuals before including them in the experiment.

Indeed that’s probably the only issue I have with Facebook doing this as whilst the data they have is theirs to do with as they see fit (within the guidelines of privacy regulations) attempting to alter people’s emotional state is a little too far. The people behind the study have came out and said that the real impact wasn’t that great and it was all done in aid of making their product better something which I’m sure is of little comfort to those who object to the experiment in the first place. Whilst the argument can be made that Facebook already manipulates users feeds (since you don’t see everything that your friends post anymore) doing so for site usability/user engagement is one thing, performing experiments on them without consent is another.

If Facebook wants to continue these kinds of experiments then they should really start taking steps to make sure that its user base is aware of what might be happening to them. Whilst I’m sure people would still take issue to Facebook doing widespread analysis on user’s emotional state it would be a far cry from what they did with this experiment, one that would likely not run afoul of established experimental standards. The researchers have said they’ll take the reaction to these results under advisement which hopefully means that they might be more respectful of their user’s data in the future. However since we’re going on 10 years of Facebook doing things like this I wouldn’t hold my breath for immediate change.

 

Always Sometimes Monsters Review Screenshot Wallpaper Title Screen

Always Sometimes Monsters: Life’s a Bitch.

It used to be that telling a story through the video game medium was an impossible task for those who weren’t versed in the multitudes of skills required to pull it off. However the development of game making tools like, funnily enough, Game Maker have enabled many brilliant stories to be told. Such games are often very simplistic in nature however complex game mechanics aren’t a requirement for a good story and the indie game industry has flourished by embodying this principle. Always Sometimes Monsters is one such game, putting the player in numerous morally ambiguous situations and letting the player decided their ultimate fate.

Always Sometimes Monsters Review Screenshot Wallpaper Title Screen

This is it, your big break. Ever since college you’ve known that you want to be a writer and finally you’ve landed a deal with a big name publisher. With the love of your life by your side it seems that nothing can go wrong and the future you always dreamed of is within your grasp. Fast forward a couple years though and everything has fallen apart, you still haven’t finished your novel and your soul mate is marrying someone else. What do you do? Do you wallow in self pity, pining for the future you could have had? Or do you risk everything to be with them, abandoning what remains of your life to pursue that dream you once held in your arms? Your decisions will shape your destiny and, ultimately, what kind of person the world thinks you are.

Always Sometimes Monsters was created in RPG Maker which has brought us other amazing based story games like To The Moon. Due to the limitations of the RPG Maker engine Always Sometimes Monsters has a similar visual feel to that other games based on it although it does have its own distinct style. The animations are extremely rudimentary with a lot of the actions just being the walk cycle repeated. It’s hard for me to judge Always Sometimes Monsters harshly on its simplistic nature as that’s not the reason you’ll be playing it but after playing so many similar titles it was one aspect that stood out to me.

Always Sometimes Monsters Review Screenshot Wallpaper Shooting Star

At its heart Always Sometimes Monsters is an adventure game, one where you’re forever on the quest to get enough cash to move you along to the next location. There’s numerous ways for you to scrounge up the dough you need from taking odd jobs at the employment office, doing favours for people or even more nefarious means. Along the way you’ll meet many of your long time friends who fill in the backstory of your life and how you interact with them will determine how everything pans out. For the most part there doesn’t appear to be an outright good and bad choice, leaving it up to you to determine where your moral boundaries lie.

Indeed Always Sometimes Monsters prides itself on the ambiguity of the decisions you’ll be making and how they affect the final outcome of the story. You do have a lot of power to alert the story how you see fit however the mechanics of how it works is somewhat cumbersome. There are numerous points where you’ll be asked a question you would have no idea what the actual answer was (like how you and the love of your life broke up) and the answer you give actually determines what happened. I’d feel better about it if there was a “true” reason and the difference between that and your response determined how some characters reacted to you but actually determining what happened with a single response just didn’t feel right.

Always Sometimes Monsters Review Screenshot Wallpaper DISPENSE PORK

There were several moments in Always Sometimes Monsters where I felt myself being drawn in, where the characters started to feel real and their problems echoed with those I’d encountered in my own life. However those moments are few and far between as Always Sometimes Monsters seems intent on beating you over the head with repetitive, menial tasks in order to further the story. The long quest for getting money at each section often leads you to taking on jobs that are incredibly boring and take up an inordinate amount of time. Then, by the time you actually get to another one of these nuggets of brilliant writing, you’re either angry or bored and the impact is lost on you. It got so bad that I tried to find a way to crack open the save files to give myself unlimited funds, just so I could actually enjoy the game.

However the numerous choices in the game unfortunately don’t add up to a cohesive story and the ending feels like a grab bag of the results of the various events you were involved in over the course of the story. Indeed probably one of the worst things is when you go through your journal and are asked, explicitly, how you feel about every single event in the game. The heavy reliance on choice is obviously done to make the game experience more personal to you, as everyone’s experience will be different depending on so many factors, however it just makes Always Sometimes Monsters story feel confused, disjointed and ultimately unsatisfying. For a game that has not much else to rely on messing up the story means the core experience unfortunately falls flat on its face.

Always Sometimes Monsters Review Screenshot Wallpaper Sunrise

Always Sometimes Monsters strived to provide an experience where the player was in control of their own destiny but unfortunately delivered an experience that fell short of its ambition. I wanted to like it, I really did, as those moments where the story shone through were truly great but they were so few and far between that the larger flaws of the gameplay and storyline are what leave a lasting impression. Your mileage may vary however, as many fellow reviewers have noted, but unfortunately for this writer Always Sometimes Monsters isn’t a game I can recommend.

Rating: 6.5/10

Always Sometimes Monsters is available on PC right now for $9.99. Total play time was 7 hours with 100% of the achievements unlocked. 

Nitrogen’s Crystalline Formation is Astonishingly Cool.

Liquid nitrogen is a scientific staple that I’m sure we’re pretty much all familiar with. It’s a great demonstration of how the melting and boiling points can vary wildly and, of course, everyone loves shattering a frozen banana or two. However seeing the other stages of elemental gases is typically impossible as getting the required temperature is beyond the reach of most high school science labs. However there is a trick that we can use to, in essence, trick nitrogen into forming a solid: reducing the pressure to a near vacuum. The results of doing so are just incredible with the nitrogen behaving in some really peculiar ways:

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The initial stages of the nitrogen transitioning into a solid is pretty standard with the reduced pressure resulting in the superheated boiling, plunging the temperature of the remaining liquid. The initial freezing is also something many will be familiar with as it closely mimics what happens when water freezes (although lacking water’s peculiar property of expanding when freezing). The sudden, and rather explosive, crystalline formation after that however took me by surprise as I’ve never really seen anything of that nature before. The closest thing I could think of was the fracturing of a Prince Rupert’s Drop although the propagation of the nitrogen crystalline structure seems to be an order of magnitude or two slower than that.

What really got me about this video is that it wasn’t done by a science channel or vlogger, it’s done by a bunch of chefs. Liquid nitrogen has been used in various culinary activities for over a century, mostly due to its extreme low temperatures which form much smaller ice crystals in the food that it chills. It should come as no surprise really as there’s been a huge surge in the science behind cooking with the field of molecular gastronomy taking off in recent decades. It just goes to show that interesting science can be done almost anywhere you care to look and its applications are likely far more wide reaching than you’d first think.

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Recycling Electromagnetic Energy? iFind, Surely You Jest.

If you’re reading this article, which is only available through the Internet, then you’re basking in a tsunami of electromagnetic radiation. Don’t worry though, the vast majority of these waves are so low power that they don’t make it through the first layer of your skin before dissipating harmlessly. Still they do carry power, enough so that this article can worm its way from the server all the way to the device that you’re reading it on. Considering just how pervasive wireless signals are in our modern lives it then follows that there’s a potential source of energy there, one that’s essentially free and nigh on omnipresent. Whilst this is true, to some extent, actually harvesting a useful amount of it is a best impractical but that hasn’t stopped people from trying.

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If you’re a longtime fan of Mythbusters like myself you’ll likely remember the episode they did on Free Energy back in 2004. In that episode they tested a myriad of devices to generate electricity, one of them being a radio wave extractor that managed to power half of a wristwatch. In an unaired segment they even rigged up a large coil of wire and placed it next to a high voltage power line and were able to generate a whopping 8mV. The result of all this testing was to show that, whilst there is some power available for harvesting, it’s not a usable quantity by any stretch of the imagination.

So you can imagine my surprise when a product like iFind makes claims like “battery free” and “never needs recharging” based around the concept of harvesting energy from the air.

The fundamental functionality of the iFind isn’t anything new, it’s just yet another Bluetooth tag system so you don’t lose whatever you attach the tag to. It’s claim to fame, and one that’s earned it a rather ridiculous half a million dollars, is that it doesn’t have a battery (which it does, unless you want to get into a semantic argument about what “battery” actually means) and that it charges off the electromagnetic waves around you. They’ve even gone as far to provide some technical documentation that shows the power generated from various signals. Suffice to say I think their idea is unworkable at best and, at worst, outright fraud.

The graphs they show in this comment would seem to indicate that it’s capable of charging even under very weak signal conditions, all the way down to -6dBm. That sounds great in principle until you take in account what a typical charging scenario for a device like this would be, like the “ideal” one that they talk about in some of their literature: a strong wifi signal. The graph shown above is the signal strength of my home wifi connection (an ASUS RT-N66U for reference) with the peak readings being from when I had my phone right next to the antennas. That gives a peak power output of some -22dBM, which sounds fine right? Well since those power ratings are logarithmic in nature the amount of power output is about 200 times weaker which puts the actual charge time at about 1000 days. If you had a focused RF source you could probably provide it with enough power to charge quickly but I doubt anyone has them in their house.

There’s also the issue of what kind of power source they have as the size precludes it from being anything hefty and they’re just referring to it as a “power bank”. Non-rechargeable batteries that fit within that form factor are usually on the order of a couple hundred milliamps with rechargeable variants having a much smaller capacity. Similar devices like Tile, which includes a non-rechargeable non-replaceable battery, lasts about a year before it dies which suggests a minimum power drain of at least a couple mAh per day. Considering iFind is smaller and rechargeable I wouldn’t expect it to last more than a couple weeks before giving it up, Of course since there’s no specifications on either of them it’s hard to judge but the laws of physics don’t differ between products.

However I will stop short of calling iFind a scam, more I think it’s a completely misguided exercise that will never deliver on its promises. They’ve probably designed something that does work under their lab circumstances but the performance will just not hold up in the real world. There’s a lot of questions that have been asked of them that are still unanswered which would go a long way to assuring people that what they’re making isn’t vaporware. Until they’re forthcoming with more information however I’d steer clear of giving them your money as it’s highly unlikely that the final product will perform as advertised.

ALPHA Antimatter Trap

The Universe’s Strange Preference for Matter.

In the beginning, the one where time itself began, the theory goes that matter and antimatter were created in equal amounts. When matter and antimatter meet they annihilate each other in a perfect transformation of matter into energy which should have meant that our universe consisted of nothing else. However, for some strange reason, the universe has a small preference for matter over antimatter, to the tune of 1 parts in 10 billion. This is why our universe is the way it is, filled with billions of galaxies and planets, with the only remnant of the cataclysmic creation being the cosmic microwave background that permeates our universe with bizarre consistency. The question of why our universe has a slight preference for matter has puzzled scientists for the better part of a century although we’re honing in on an answer.

ALPHA Antimatter TrapIf you had the ability to see microwaves then the night sky would have a faint glow about it, one that was the same no matter which direction you looked in. This uniform background radiation is a relic of the early universe where matter and antimatter were continuously annihilating each other, leaving behind innumerable photons that now permeate every corner of the known universe. What’s rather perplexing is that we haven’t observed any primordial antimatter left over from the big bang, only the matter that makes up the observable universe. This lack of antimatter means that, for some reason or another, our universe has an asymmetry in it that has a preference for matter. Where this asymmetry lies though is still unknown but we’re slowly eliminating its hiding spots.

The Antihydrogen Laser Physics Apparatus (ALPHA) team at CERN has been conducting experiments with antimatter for some time now. They have been successfully capturing antiprotons for several years and have recently moved up to capturing antihydrogen atoms. Their approach to doing this is quite novel as traditional means of capturing antimatter usually revolve around strong magnetic fields which limit what kinds of analysis you can do on them. ALPHA’s detector can transfer the antihydrogen away from their initial capture region to another one which has a uniform electric field, allowing them to perform measurements on them. Antihydrogen is electrically neutral, much like its twin hydrogen, so the field shouldn’t deflect them. The results have shown that antihydrogen particles have a charge that’s equivalent to 0, showing that it shares the same properties as its regular matter brethren.

This might not sound like a much of a revelation however it was a potential spot for the universe’s asymmetry to pop up in. Had the charge of the antihydrogen atom been significantly different from that of hydrogen it would’ve been a clue as to the source of the universe’s preference for matter. We’ve found that not to be the case so it means that the asymmetry exists somewhere else. While this doesn’t exactly tell us where it might be it does rule out one possibility which is about as good as it gets in modern science. There’s still many more experiments to be done by the ALPHA team and I have no doubt they’ll be significant contributors to modelling just similar matter and antimatter are.

 

CSIRO Solar Thermal Heliostats

CSIRO Goes Supercritical on Solar Thermal.

Whilst I might tend towards nuclear being the best option to satisfy our power needs (fission for now, fusion for the future) I see little reason for us to not pursue renewable technologies. Solar and wind have both proven to be great sources of energy that, even at the micro scale, have proven to be great sources of energy that have great returns on investment. Even the more exotic forms of renewable energy, like wave power and biomass, have proven that they’re more than just another green dream. However the renewable energy which I believe has the most potential is concentrated solar thermal which, if engineered right, can produce power consistently over long periods of time.

CSIRO Solar Thermal Heliostats

Solar thermal isn’t a recent technology with functioning plants operating in Spain since 2007. However compared to most other forms of power generation it’s still in its nascent stages with the numerous different approaches being trialled to figure out how to best set up and maintain a plant of this nature. This hasn’t stopped the plants from generating substantial amounts of power in the interim however with the largest capable of generating 392MW which might not sound like a lot when you compare it to some coal fueled giants but they do it without consuming any non-renewable fuel. What’s particularly exciting for me is that our own CSIRO is working on developing this technology and just passed a historic milestone.

The CSIRO maintains an Energy Center up in Newcastle where they develop both energy efficient building designs as well as renewable energy systems. Of the numerous systems they have there (including a traditional photovoltaic system, wind turbine and gas fired microturbine) are two concentrating solar thermal towers capable of generating 500KW and 1MW respectively. Their larger array recently generated supercritical steam at temperatures that could melt aluminium, an astonishing achievement. This means that their generating turbines can operate far more efficiently than traditional subcritical designs can, allowing them to generate more power. Whilst they admit they’re still a ways off a commercial level implementation the fact they were able to do it with a small array is newsworthy in itself as even the larger plants overseas haven’t achieved such a goal yet.

Looking at the designs they have on their website it seems their design is along the traditional lines of solar thermal, using the steam created to directly feed into the turbine to generate electricity. This, of course, suffers from the age old problem that you only generate power when the sun is shining, limiting its effectiveness to certain parts of the day. The current solution to this is to use a heat storage medium, molten salts being the currently preferred option, to capture heat for later use. Thankfully it seems the CSIRO is investigating different heat storage mediums, including molten salts, to augment their solar thermal plant with. I’m not sure if it would be directly compatible with their current set up (you usually heat the molten salts directly and then use them to generate steam down the line) but it’s good to see that they’re considering all aspects of solar thermal power generation.

Considering just how much of Australia is barren desert that’s bathed in the suns radiation solar thermal seems like the smart choice for generating large amounts of power without the carbon footprint that typically comes along with it. The research work that is being done at the CSIRO and abroad means that this technology is not just an environmentalist’s dream, it’s a tangible product that is already proving to have solid returns on investment. If all goes well we might be seeing our first solar thermal plant sooner than you’d think, something I think all of us can get excited about.

Murdered Soul Suspect Review Screenshot Wallpaper Title Screen

Murdered: Soul Suspect: It’s Never Easy Moving On.

Ever since I had my first taste of a story first game all those years ago I’ve been hooked on finding that same experience again in modern titles. Whilst Quantic Dream has always managed to deliver a solid experience in this regard newcomers to this field are very hit or miss, often not achieving what they set out to do. The struggle between just how much game makes it into the final product is what usually trips up most first time developers with the story suffering because of it (or vice versa). Murdered: Soul Suspect treads carefully enough to avoid some of these potential pitfalls whilst unfortunately falling prey to many others.

Murdered Soul Suspect Review Screenshot Wallpaper Title Screen

In the sleepy town of Salem, Massachusetts a murderer walks in the shadows. The killings seemingly have no relation to one another except for the victims always being young girls. The case  has become something of an obsession for one of the local officers, Ronan O’Connor, a reformed criminal looking to make up for his questionable past. When he gets word of the Bell killer’s location he disregards all calls to wait for backup and pursues the criminal himself. However things don’t go as planned and in an instant things take a dark turn with Ronan thrown out a window and his life unceremoniously ended by his own weapon. Now, as he lies trapped between this world and the next, Ronan is compelled to find out who his killer is.

Visually Murdered: Soul Suspect is a dark and dreary place with the whole game taking place during the course of a single night. The graphics are about average when you compare it to similar titles of its time, a lot of the style still rooted in the previous generation’s console limitations. This might also be partly due to the use of the Unreal 3 engine which always seems to have a similar visual feel no matter the art styling. The styling of the UI elements seems to be of much poorer quality than the rest of the game, to the point of being quite distracting. I understand that at least some of this was done to enhance the “supernatural” feel of the game but since it’s not consistent throughout the various elements it just ends up sticking out more than anything.

Murdered Soul Suspect Review Screenshot Wallpaper Your Untimely Demise

Murdered: Soul Suspect is a puzzle game, one that requires you to gather up all the clues you can find and then use them in order to piece together what happened at a particular scene. Typically the clues are just things lying around the room, waiting for you to interact with them, although some will require a little more detective work in order to unlock them. Whilst the world isn’t particularly big you are free to explore pretty much all of it at your leisure although some places will be unavailable to you until you’ve unlocked some of your ghost abilities further down the line. There’s also numerous side quests and collectible missions which unlock various other stories that aren’t related to the main campaign, something which bolsters Murdered: Soul Suspects otherwise drastically short play time.

The puzzles that you’ll solve really aren’t that difficult at all considering that you’re told what area you need to look in to find them (moving out of an area where a clue might be removes the clue counter, indicating you’ve wandered too far) and that relevant clues typically come with a “memory flash” of what happened. These flashes sometimes come with another word puzzle element which has you choosing a few words to describe the picture you’re seeing. The hardest part then comes from selecting the right clues to complete the investigation or figuring out how to influence someone in order to get the  clue you need. Indeed the only time I struggled to finish investigations was when the game decided not to spawn the required objects for me to interact with, something I’ll touch on later.

Murdered Soul Suspect Review Screenshot Wallpaper Posses The Table

There are open world aspects to Murdered: Soul Suspect as well, allowing you to run around Salem looking for collectibles and helping out other ghosts that find themselves trapped in this realm. You can also posses people and read their minds, which sounds fun to begin with, however after a while you start to find that many NPCs are reused throughout the game and, despite their different circumstances in which you find them, they always have the same few lines to say. I feel like there’s something of a missed opportunity here as it would’ve added a little something more to the world to be able to influence the random people on the street or if there was another story you could unlock by reading enough minds. Sadly there isn’t and so after the first hour or so you’ll likely find yourself skipping all non-essential ghost power use.

Murdered: Soul Suspect is also rather glitchy as the screenshot above will attest to. There are numerous times when NPCs just won’t spawn or will spawn but won’t be visible or in the location where the game wants them to be. You can often resolve this issue by restart from a checkpoint but other times, like during an investigation, you’ll be left wandering around in circles wondering where the last clue is or clicking on clues you’ve already discovered hoping they’ll trigger something else. For a game that struggles with pacing at the best of times this isn’t a great glitch to have and it definitely had a negative impact on my experience.

Murdered Soul Suspect Review Screenshot Wallpaper Horror Stories

However Murdered: Soul Suspect’s greatest failing is that the story just fails to captivate you in any way. On the surface the concept sounds pretty amazing, you’re a ghost detective solving your own murder, however I simply failed to empathize with the majority of the characters. There was massive potential here to give the characters incredible depth using the mind reading mechanic which unfortunately seems to be used to pad the game time out. Worst still the characters that were seemingly given the most attention, in terms of backstory development, are the ones with the least amount of presence in the actual game, being constrained to journal entries. Honestly my hopes weren’t that high for an emotional rollercoaster but I have to say that the overall story felt very lacklustre which is only amplified by the sub-par mechanics.

It’s a real shame because the side stories, typically the ones you unlock from collecting a bunch of artifacts in a particular area, are actually quite good. This was probably the only reason I pursued most of them down as they are the shining moments in Murdered: Soul Suspect, both in terms of their stories as well as the voice acting behind them. Again it feels like another one of the game’s missed opportunities as these stories are a part of the history of this game’s world and yet they’re limited to 5 minute reading sessions that are only unlocked through a tedious collecting mechanic. I don’t have a good idea as to how they could be worked in but suffice to say that Airtight Games would do well to replicate what they did in those stories in the main campaign.

Murdered Soul Suspect Review Screenshot Wallpaper Its Time

Murdered: Soul Suspect unfortunately fails to achieve the goals it set out to do, delivering a mediocre story behind trivial puzzle mechanics whilst hiding its best aspects in a tedious treasure quest. I won’t deny that I had my hand in this as when I heard about the concept I immediately started drawing comparisons to Heavy Rain in my head and there are few games, in my mind, that come close. Still even taking that into consideration Murdered: Soul Suspect feels like a decidedly average game, failing to evoke the kind of emotional investment required by a game of this nature.

Rating: 6/10

Murdered: Soul Suspect is available on PC, PlayStation3, PlayStation4, Xbox360 and XboxOne right now for $49.99, $79.95, $99.95, $79.95 and $99.95 respectively. Game was played entirely on the PC with 7 hours of total play time and 83% of the achievements unlocked.

What it Takes to Make Wheels that can Travel at 1600km/h.

One of my favourite shows that I found out about far too late into my adult life was How It’s Made. The premise of the show is simple: they take you into the manufacturing process behind many common products, showing you how they go from their raw materials into the products we all know. Whilst I’d probably recommend skipping the episodes which show you how some of your favourite food is made (I think that’s called the Sausage Principle) the insight into how some things are made can be incredibly fascinating. However whilst everyday products can be interesting they pale in comparison to something like the following video which shows how solid aluminium wheels are created for an upcoming jet car:

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I think what gets me most about this video is the amazing level of precision that they’re able to obtain using massive tools, something which usually doesn’t go together. The press seems to be able to move in very small increments and can do so at speeds that just seem to be out of this world. The gripper also seems to have a pretty high level of fidelity about it, being able to pick up an extremely malleable piece of heated aluminium without structurally deforming it. That’s only half the equation though as the operators of these machines are obviously highly skilled in their operation, being able to guide them with incredible accuracy.

In fact the whole YouTube channel dedicated to the Bloodhound SSC car is filled with engineering marvels like this from showing off the construction of the monocoque and the attached components all the way to the interior and the software they’ll be using for it. If the above video had you tingling with excitement (well, I was, but I’m strange) then I highly recommend checking them out.

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Looks Like Ubisoft Owes Us Some Answers.

In my recent review of Ubisoft Montreal’s latest game, Watch_Dogs, I gave the developers the benefit of the doubt when it came to the graphics issues that many people had raised. Demos are often scripted and sculpted in such a way as to show a game in the best light possible and so the delivered product most often doesn’t line up with people’s expectations. So since Watch_Dogs wasn’t an unplayable monstrosity I chalked it up to the hype leading us all astray and Ubisoft pulling the typical demo shenanigans. As it turns out though there’s a way to make Watch_Dogs look as good as it did in the demos and all that’s required is adding 2 files to a directory.

This mod came to everyone’s attention yesterday with dozens of screenshots plastering all the major games news outlets. A modder called TheWorse on Guru3D became obsessed with diving into the Watch_Dog code and eventually managed to unpack many of the game’s core files. After that he managed to enable many of the effects that had been present in the original E3 demo of Watch_Dogs, along with tweaking a number of other settings to great effect. The result speaks for itself (as my before and after screenshots above can attest to) with the game looking quite a lot better than it did on my first play through. The thing with this mod is that unlike other graphical enhancements like ENB, which gives us all those pretty Skyrim screenshots, this mod isn’t adding anything to the rendering pipeline, it’s just enabling functionality that’s already there. Indeed this is most strongly indicated by the mod’s size, a paltry 45KB in size.

So first things first: I was wrong. Whilst the demo at E3 was likely running on a machine far better than many PC gamers have access to this mod shows that Watch_Dogs is capable of looking a lot better than it currently is. My current PC is approaching some 3 years old now, almost ancient in gaming PC years, and it was able to run the mod with ultra graphics settings, something I wasn’t able to do previously. It could probably use a little tweaking to get the framerate a bit higher but honestly that’s just my preference for higher frame rates more than anything. So with this in mind the question then turns to why Watch_Dogs shipped on PC in the state it did and who was ultimately responsible for removing the features that had so many in love with the E3 demo.

The conspiracy theorist in me wants to join the chorus of people saying that Watch_Dogs was intentionally crippled on PC in order to make it look more comparable to its console brethren. Whilst I can’t deny that it’s a possibility I simply have no evidence apart from the features being in the game files themselves. This is where Ubisoft’s response to the controversy would shed some light on the issue as whilst they’re not likely to say “Yep, we did it because Watch_Dogs looks horrendous on consoles when compared to PC” they might at least give us some insight into why these particular features were disabled. Unfortunately they’re still keeping their lips sealed on this one so unfortunately all we have to go on now is rampant speculation, something I’m not entirely comfortable with engaging in.

Regardless of the reasons though it does feel a bit disingenuous to be shown one product and then be sold another. Most of the traditional reasons for disabled features, like performance or stability issues, just don’t seem to be present with this mod, which lends credence to the idea that they were disabled on purpose after they were fully developed. Until Ubisoft starts talking about this though we don’t have much more to go on and since this can be enabled so easily I don’t think many gamers are going to care too much what they have to say anyway. Still I’d very much like to know the story behind it as looks a lot more like a political/financial issue rather than a purely technical one.

HP The Machine High Level Architecture

HP’s “The Machine”: You’d Better Deliver on This, HP.

Whilst computing has evolved exponentially in terms of capabilities and raw computing performance the underlying architecture that drives it has remained largely the same for the past 30 years. The vast majority of platforms are either x86 or some other CISC variant running on a silicon wafer that’s been lithographed to have the millions (and sometimes billions) of transistors etched into it. This is then all connected up to various other components and storage through the various bus definitions, most of which have changed dramatically in the face of new requirements. There’s nothing particularly wrong with this model, it’s served us well and has fallen within the bounds of Moore’s Law for quite some time, however there’s always the nagging question of whether or not there’s another way to do things, perhaps one that will be much better than anything we’ve done before.

According HP their new concept, The Machine, is the answer to that question.

HP The Machine High Level Architecture

 

For those who haven’t yet read about it (or watched the introductory video on the technology) HP’s The Machine is set to be the next step in computing, taking the most recent advances in computer technology and using them to completely rethink what constitutes a computer. In short there are 3 main components that make it up, 2 of which are based on technology that have yet to see a commercial application. The first appears to be a Sony Cell like approach to computing cores, essentially combining numerous smaller cores into one big computing pool which can then be activated at will, technology which currently powers their Moonshot range of servers. The second piece is optical interconnects, something which has long been discussed as the next stage in computing but as of yet hasn’t really made in roads at the level HP is talking about. Finally the idea of “universal memory” which is essentially memristor storage which HP Labs has been teasing for some time but has failed to bring any product to light.

As an idea The Machine is pretty incredible, taking the best of breed technology for every subsystem of the traditional computer and putting it all together in the one place. HP is taking the right approach with it too as whilst The Machine might share some common ancestry with regular computers (I’m sure the “special purpose cores” are likely to be x86) current operating systems make a whole bunch of assumptions that won’t be compatible with its architecture. Thankfully they’ll be open sourcing Machine OS which means that it won’t be long before other vendors will be able to support it. It would be all too easy for them to create another HP-UX, a great piece of software in its own right that no one wants to touch because it’s just too damn niche to bother with. That being said however the journey between this concept and reality is a long one, fraught with the very real possibility of it never happening.

You see whilst all of these technologies that make up The Machine might be real in one sense or another 2 of them have yet to see a commercial release. The memristor based storage was “a couple years away” after the original announcement by HP however here we are, some 6 years later, and not even a prototype device has managed to rear its head. Indeed HP said last year that we might see memristor drives in 2018 if we’re lucky and the roadmap shown in the concept video shows the first DIMMs appearing sometime in 2016. Similar things can be said for optical interconnects as whilst they’ve existed at the large scale for some time (fibre interconnects for storage are fairly common) they have yet to be created for the low level type of interconnects that The Machine would require. HP’s roadmap to getting this technology to market is much less clear, something which HP will need to get right if they don’t want the whole concept to fall apart at the seams.

Honestly my scepticism comes from a history of being disappointed by concepts like this with many things promising the world in terms of computing and almost always failing to deliver on them. Even some of the technology contained within The Machine has already managed to disappoint me with memristor storage remaining vaporware despite numerous publications saying it was mere years away from commercial release. This is one of those times that I’d love to be proven wrong though as nothing would make me happier than to see a true revolution in the way we do computing, one that would hopefully enable us to do so much more. Until I see real pieces of hardware from HP however I’ll remain sceptical, lest I get my feelings hurt once again.