The interfaces of the future are almost always depicted as something that’s devoid of any interface peripheral leaving nothing between the humans and the screens they’re interacting with. Of these the most iconic is the one from Minority Report where we see Tom Cruise wave his hands around in order to manipulate data with the motions being so intuitive many people left the theater wondering how long it would take to get that technology in their homes. It didn’t take long for it to be developed but despite people’s excitement regarding the potential future of interface technology you’d be hard pressed to find it anywhere, let alone in anyone’s house.
There’s a company out there that’s trying to change that called Leap Motion and their new product has a distinctly Minority Report feel to it:
Now the Leap Motion controller isn’t anything revolutionary from a technological point of view. It’s fundamentally the same as a Kinect (which itself is based off PrimeSense technology) however rather than doing whole body detection over a wide area the Leap Motion controller has instead been designed to recognize finer grained motion in a much smaller area. So instead of being aimed at the gaming market Leap Motion is positioning itself as an alternative interface to the traditional desktop PC, one that has the potential to replace many of the capabilities of the current standard interface peripherals (and even some of the non-standard ones). However there are some fundamental issues with it that will likely impede its adoption and they’re not exactly unique to the Leap Motion idea.
The Gorilla Arm effect is a well known phenomena in ergonomics whereby any interface system that requires someone to hold their arm out and make fine motions ends up with the user’s arm feeling tired and sore in no short order. It was first encountered when touchscreens were first developed which, at the time, was thought to be the next big revolution in interface design. Now whilst touchscreens are a big part of the world today they’re used much more like traditional peripherals (I.E. they don’t require you to hold your arms up) and not in the same way in which the Leap Motion demonstrates much of its functionality.
Now the argument can be made that the Leap Motion controller can provide a lot of additional functionality without invoking the Gorilla Arm effect as there has been musings that it could replace your keyboard and, by logical extension, your mouse as well. The trouble with that is however is that such interfaces lack any kind of tactile feedback something which plagued the similarly cool but useless idea of the laser keyboards. Indeed as I mentioned in my review of the Surface and its atrocious touch keyboard the lack of feedback makes using them quite a chore and unfortunately I can’t see how Leap Motion would be able to get around that particular issue.
Where it might become useful is in gestures that could be tied up with shortcuts in your application of choice. Personally I wouldn’t find much use for it as my muscle memory for all the required shortcuts is already etched into my nervous system but it would essentially be an alternative to something like a multi-touch trackpad. Whether or not one is better than the other is an exercise that I’ll leave up to the reader but suffice to say whilst the Leap Motion controller looks cool it’s applicability in the real world seems rather limited.
It could make a rather awesome little augment for robotics projects, however.
So whilst getting into sessions at PAX might have been something of a bum steer this time around there was one thing that it really excelled at: getting people together to play games, any kind of games. I don’t mean this lightly either they catered to essentially every time of gamer you could think of with their massive games libraries and spaces dedicated to playing. By far the best time I had there was stumbling into the free play PC area late at night when there were a bunch of PCs free and our group of friends just playing, like the good old days of LANs. It’s also an opportunity for gamers like me, who spend the vast majority of their time on a single platform, to experiment with others and strangely enough I found myself behind the controls of a WiiU.
The game we played was Nintendo Land, a kind of lavish tech demo ala Wii Sports which did the same thing for the original Wii back in the day. Most of the games are incredibly simplistic in nature but are centered around playing together and demonstrating what’s possible with the Wii U controller. My friend who introduced us to this game insisted that we play one which was essentially a game of one person trying to run/hide from everyone else. Catch is the person who’s being chased has the Wii U controller and can see everything that the people trying to hunt them down is doing. I was a little skeptical at first but I figured that I had some time to kill while our friends finished up their game of Puerto Rico.
Then something weird happened, I started having fun.
It’s a simple premise but the game play that comes out of it is really quite fun as you team up against one person to try and chase them down. The other games in Nintendo Land are based around similar premises, like one where you’re a ghost that has to scare all the other players, and they all have that simple joy of co-operative/competitive play which makes them great for both kids and adults a like. I didn’t end up playing all of the modes since we were meandering off to the PC area but I walked away with the feeling that whilst the Wii U might not be the crazy success the Wii was there’s definitely something to it, even if that thing won’t potentially sell.
Honestly I think the problem here is one of market saturation and the value proposition that the Wii U brings to the table. The Wii was successful because it went after the largest target market: people who don’t traditionally play games. This helped spread the console to places where it never would’ve gone before, to the point where just getting one seemed to elect you to an exclusive club. This was at the cost of alienating some of the more hardcore/dedicated fan base, something I’m sure Nintendo was willing to wear for the sales it got. The problem with this is that the difference between the Wii and the Wii U isn’t big enough for those kinds of users to see the value in upgrading, indeed when I told my wife (an avid user of our Wii) about the Wii U she wondered why we’d bother getting it and, at the time, I was inclined to agree with her. After playing it I can see that there are some cool uses cases for that giant controller, ones that I’m sure current Wii owners would appreciate, but I don’t think Nintendo has done a great job of selling that so far.
Did this convince me to buy one? Not particularly as there’s no games that are drawing me to the platform and I can’t see myself getting a group of people together to play Nintendo Land very often. This could change, indeed it might almost be worth it for a HD Zelda game, but there’s little more than that novelty aspect going for it currently. I’m not exactly sure how Nintendo can overcome this, they’re in a bit of a chicken and egg situation at the moment with developers and titles, but there’s no denying that there’s something to the Wii U concept.
I’ve seen so many consoles come and during my years as a gamer. I remember the old rivalries back in the day between the stalwart Nintendo fans and the just as dedicated Sega followers. As time went on Nintendo’s dominance became hard to push back against and Sega struggled to face up to the competition. Sony however made quite a splash with their original Playstation and was arguably the reason behind the transition away from game cartridges to the disc based systems we have today. For the last 5 years or so though there really hasn’t been much of a shake up in the console market, save for the rise of the motion controllers (which didn’t really shake anything up other than causing a giant fit of mee-tooism from all the major players).
I think the reasons for this are quite simple: consoles became powerful enough to be somewhat comparable to PCs, the old school king of gaming. The old business models of having to release a new console every 3 years or so didn’t make sense when your current generation was more than capable of modern games at a generally acceptable level. There was also the fact that Microsoft got burned slightly by releasing the Xbox360 so soon after the original Xbox and I’m sure Sony and Nintendo weren’t keen on making the same mistake. All we’ve got now are rumours about the next generation of consoles but by and large they’re not shaping up to be anything revolutionary like their current gen brethren were when they were released.
What’s really been shaking up the gaming market recently though is the mobile/tablet gaming sector. Whilst I’ll hesitate to put these in the same category as consoles (they are, by and large, not a platform with a primary purpose of gaming in mind) they have definitely had an impact in the portable sector. At the same time though the quality of games available on the mobile platform has increased significantly and developers now look to develop titles on the mobile platform wouldn’t have been reasonable or feasible only a few short years ago. This is arguably due to the marked increase in computing power that has been made available to even the most rudimentary of smart phones which spurred developers on to be far more ambitious with the kinds of titles they develop for the platform.
What I never considered though was a crossover between the traditional console market and the now flourishing mobile sector. That’s were OUYA, an Android based game console, comes into play.
OUYA is at its heart a smartphone without a screen or a cellular chipset in it. At its core it boasts a NVIDIA Tegra 3 coupled with 1GB of RAM, 8GB of flash storage, Bluetooth and a USB 2 port for connectivity. For a console the specifications aren’t particularly amazing, in fact they’re down right pitiful, but it’s clear that their idea for a system isn’t something that can play the latest Call of Duty. Instead the OUYA’s aim is to lurethat same core of developers, the ones who have been developing games for mobile platforms, over to their platform by making the console cheap, license free and entirely open. They’ve also got the potential to get a lot of momentum from current Android developers who will just need a few code modifications to support the controller, giving them access to potentially thousands of launch titles.
I’ll be honest at the start I was somewhat sceptical about what the OUYA’s rapid funding success meant. When I first looked at the console specifications and intended market I got the feeling that the majority of people ordering it weren’t doing it for the OUYA as a console, no the were more looking at it as a cracking piece of hardware for a bargain basement price. Much like the Raspberry Pi the OUYA gives you some bits of tech that are incredibly expensive to acquire otherwise like a Tegra 3 coupled with 1GB RAM and a Bluetooth controller. However that was back when there were only 8,000 backers but as of this morning there’s almost 30,000 orders in for this unreleased console. Additionally the hype surrounding around the console doesn’t appear to be centred on the juicy bits of hardware underneath it, people seem to be genuinely excited by the possibilities that could be unlocked by such a console.
I have to admit that I am too. Whilst I don’t expect the OUYA to become the dominant platform or see big name developers rushing towards releasing torrents of titles on it the OUYA represents something that the console market has been lacking: a cheap, low cost player that’s open to anyone. It’s much like the presence of an extremely cut-rate airline (think Tiger Airlines in Australia) sure you might not catch them all the time because of the ridiculous conditions attached to the ticket but their mere presence keeps the other players on their best behaviour. The OUYA represents a free, no holds barred arena where big and small companies alike can duke it out and whilst there might not be many multi-million dollar titles made for the platform you can bet that the big developers won’t be able to ignore it for long.
I’m genuinely excited about what the OUYA represents for the console games industry. With innovation seemingly at a stand still for the next year or two it will be very interesting to see how the OUYA fairs, especially considering its release date for the first production run in slated for early next year. I’m also very keen to see what kinds of titles will be available for it at launch and, hacker community willing, what kinds of crazy, non-standard uses for the device come out. I gladly plonked down $149 for the privilege of getting 1 with 2 controllers and even if you have only a casual interest in game consoles I’d urge you to do much the same.
Today the platform of choice for the vast majority of gamers is the console, there’s really no question about it. Whilst video games may have found their feet with PCs consoles took them to the next level offering a consistent user experience that expanded the potential market greatly. PC gaming however is far from dead and has even been growing despite the heavy competition that it faces in consoles. However the idea of providing a consistent user experience whilst maintaining the flexibility is an enticing one and there are several companies that are attempting to fuse the best elements of both platforms in the hopes of capturing both markets.
OnLive is one of these such companies. Their product is, in essence, PC gaming as a service (PCGAAS?) and seeks to alleviate the troubles some gamers used to face with the constant upgrade cycle. I was sceptical of the idea initially as their target demographic seemed quite small but here we are 2 years later and they’re still around, even expanding their operations beyond the USA. Still the limitations on the service (high bandwidth requirement being chief amongst them) mean that whilst OnLive might provide a consistent experience on par of that of consoles the service will likely never see the mainstream success that the 3 major consoles do.
Rumours have been circulating recently that Valve may take a stab at this problem; taking the best parts of the PC experience and distilling them down into a console creating new platform called the Steam Box:
According to sources, the company has been working on a hardware spec and associated software which would make up the backbone of a “Steam Box.” The actual devices may be made by a variety of partners, and the software would be readily available to any company that wants to get in the game.
Adding fuel to that fire is a rumor that the Alienware X51 may have been designed with an early spec of the system in mind, and will be retroactively upgradable to the software.
Indeed there’s enough circumstantial evidence to give some credence to these rumours. Valve applied for a patent on a controller back in 2009, one that had a pretty interesting twist to it. The controller would be modular allowing the user to modify it and those modifications would be detected by the controller. Such an idea fits pretty well with a PC/console type hybrid that the Steam Box is likely to be. It would also enable a wider selection of titles to be available on the Steam Box as not all games lend themselves well to the traditional 2 joystick console controller standard.
At the same time one of Valve’s employees, Greg Coomer, has been tweeting about a project that he’s working on that looks suspiciously like some kind of set top box. Now Valve doesn’t sell hardware, they’re a games company at heart, so why someone at Valve would be working on such a project does raise some questions. Further the screenshot of the potential Steam Box shows what looks to be a Xbox360 controller in the background. It’s entirely possible that such a rig was being used as a lightweight demo box for Valve to use at trade shows, but it does seem awfully coincidental.
For what its worth the idea of a Steam box could have some legs to it. Gone are the days when a constant upgrade cycle was required to play the latest games, mostly thanks to the consolization of the games market. What this means though is that a modern day gaming PC has the longevity rivalling that of most consoles. Hell even my last full upgrade lasted almost 3 years before I replaced it and even then I didn’t actually need to replace it; I just wanted to. A small, well designed PC then could function much like a console in that regard and you could even make optimized compliers for it to further increase it’s longevity.
The Steam Box could also leverage off the fact that many PC titles, apart from things like RTS, lend themselves quite well to the controller format. In fact much of Steam’s current catalog would be only a short modification away from being controller ready and some are even set up for their use already. The Steam Box then would come out of the box with thousands of titles ready for it, something that few platforms can lay claim to. It may not draw the current Steam crowd away from their PCs but it would be an awfully attractive option to someone who was looking to upgrade but didn’t want to go through the hassle of building/researching their own box.
Of course this is all hearsay at the moment but I think there could be something to this idea. It might not reach the same market penetration as any of the major consoles but there’s a definite niche in there that would be well served by something like this. What remains to be seen now is a) whether or not this thing is actually real and b) how the market reacts should Valve actually announce said device. If the rumours are anything to go by we may not have to wait too long to find both of those things out.
Up until recently most of my data at home hadn’t been living in the safest environment. You see like many people I kept all my data on single hard drives, their only real protection being that most of them spent their lives unplugged, sitting next to my hard drive docking bay. Of course tragedy struck one day when my playful feline companion decided that the power cord for one of the portable hard drives looked like something to play with and promptly pulled it onto the floor. Luckily nothing of real importance was on there (apart from my music collection that had some of the oldest files I had ever managed to keep) but it did get me thinking about making my data a little more secure.
The easiest way to provide at least some level of protection was to get my data onto a RAID set so that at least a single disk failure wouldn’t take out my data again. I figured that if I put one large RAID in my media box and a second in my main PC (which I was planning to do anyway) then I could keep copies of the data on each of them, as RAID on its own is not a backup solution. A couple thousand dollars and a weekend later I was in possession of a new main PC and all the fixings of a new RAID set on my media PC ready to hold my data. Everything was looking pretty rosy for a while, but then the problems started.
Now the media PC that I had built was something of a beast, sporting enough RAM and a good enough graphics card to be able to play most recent games at high settings. Soon after I had completed building it I was going to a LAN with a bunch of mates of mine, one of which who was travelling from Melbourne and wasn’t able to bring his PC with him. Too easy I thought, he can just use this new awesome beast of a box to play games with us and everything shall be good. In all honesty it was until I saw him reboot it once and the RAID controller flashed up a warning about the RAID being critical, which sent chills down my spine.
Looking at the RAID UI in Windows I found that yes indeed one of the disks had dropped out of the RAID set, but there didn’t seem to be anything wrong with it. Confused I started the rebuild on the RAID set and it managed to complete successfully after a few hours, leaving me to think that I might have bumped a cable or something to trigger the “failure”. When I got it home however the problem kept recurring, but it was random and never seemed to follow a distinct pattern, except for it being the same disk every time. Eventually however it stabilized and so I figured that it was just a transient problem and left it at that.
Unfortunately for me it happened again last night, but it wasn’t the same disk this time. Figuring it was a bung RAID controller I was preparing to siphon my data off it in order to rebuild it as a software RAID when my wife asked me if I had actually tried Googling around to see if others had had the same issue. I had done so in the past but I hadn’t been very thorough with it so I decided that it was probably worth the effort, especially if it could save me another 4 hours of babying the copy process. What I found has made me deeply frustrated, not just with certain companies but also myself for not researching this properly.
The drives I bought all those months ago where Seagate ST2000DL003 2TB Green drives which are cheap, low power drives that seemed perfect for a large amount of RAID storage. However there’s a slight problem with these kinds of drives when they’re put into a RAID set. You see the hard drives have error correction built into them but thanks to their “green” rating this process can be quite slow, on the order of 10 seconds to minutes if the drive is under heavy load. RAID controllers are programmed to mark disks as failed if they stop responding after a certain period of time, usually a couple seconds or so. That means should a drive start correcting itself and not respond quick enough to the RAID controller it will mark the disk as failed and remove it, putting the array into a critical state.
Seeing the possibility for this to cause issues for everyone hard drive manufacturers have developed a protocol called Time-Limited Error Recovery (or Error Recovery Correction for Seagate). TLER limits the amount of time the hard drive will spend attempting to recover from an error, so if it can’t be dealt with within that time frame it’ll then hand it off to the RAID controller, leaving the disk in the RAID and allowing it to recover. For the drives I had bought this setting is set to off as default and a quick Google has shown that any attempts to change it are futile. Most other brands are able to change this particular value but for these particular Seagate drives they are unfortunately locked in this state.
So where does this leave me? Well apart from hoping that Seagate releases a firmware update that allows me to change that particular value I’m up the proverbial creek without a paddle. Replacing these drives with similar drives from another manufacturer will set me back another $400 and a weekend’s worth of work so it’s not something I’m going to do immediately. I’m going to pester Seagate and hope that they’ll release a fix for this because other than that one issue they’ve been fantastic drives and I’d hate to have to get rid of them because of it. Hopefully they’re responsive about it but judging by what people are saying on the Seagate forums I shouldn’t hold my breath, but it’s all I’ve got right now.
I’ve been a Nintendo fan for well over 2 decades now, my first experiences with them dating all the way back to the original Nintendo Entertainment System which I believe is still in a functioning state in a closet out at my parent’s place. I have to admit though they kind of lost me when they released the Game Cube as by then I was hooked on my shiny new PlayStation and there weren’t any games on the Game Cube that appealed to me as a burgeoning hardcore gamer. That trend continued for a long time until my then housemate bought a Wii on the release date but even then I didn’t really play it that much, instead favoring my PS3 and Xbox360. Indeed the Wii I got using some credit card reward points has been mostly unused since we got it, even though I thought there were a couple games on it I was “dying” to try.
For what its worth it’s not really Nintendo’s fault that I haven’t really been a massive user of their last 2 generations of platforms, they made it clear that they were hunting for a different market and I wasn’t in it. Sure there were some nostalgia titles that tugged on my heart and wallet (Zelda and Mario, of course) but they weren’t enough for me to make the leap and I’ve stuck to my other staples ever since. Nintendo had firmly cemented themselves as the game console for people who don’t identify as gamers, broadening their market to unprecedented levels but also alienating the crowd who grew up with them to become today’s grown up gamers. At the time it was a trade off Nintendo appeared happy to make but recent announcements show that they may be thinking otherwise.
Nintendo recently announced the console that is to be the successor to the Wii which has been worked on under the title of Project Cafe and will be officially known as the Wii U. The console itself looks very similar to its predecessor, sporting the same overall layout whilst being a little bit bigger and preferring a rounder shape to the Wii’s highly angular design. Nintendo is also pairing the new console with another new accessory, a controller that comes with an embedded touch screen. At first it looks completely ludicrous, especially if you take into consideration that the Wii’s trademark was motion controlled games. After reading a bit more about it however it appears that this tablet-esque controller will function more like an augmentation to games rather than being the primary method of control, with the Wii nun-chucks still being used for games that rely on motion control.
The console itself is shaping up to be no slouch either, eschewing Nintendo’s trend of making under powered consoles in favor of one that is capable of producing full 1080p HD content. Whilst the official specifications for the Wii U aren’t released yet the demonstrations of the release titles for the console do not suffer from the low polygon counts of previous Wii titles with the demos looking quite stunning. With enough grunt under the hood of the Wii U Nintendo could also be making a play for the media extender market as well, something Microsoft and Sony have covered off well in the past. Couple that with a controller that would make one nice HTPC remote and I’m almost sold on the idea, but that’s not the reason why I’m tentatively excited about what the Wii U signals for Nintendo.
Nintendo has said during the E3 conference that they believe their new console will target a much broader audience than that of the Xbox or PlayStation, which taken on face value doesn’t mean a whole lot. The Wii sales numbers speak for themselves as both gamers and non-gamers alike bought the Wii and it outsold its competitors by a large margin, so if Nintendo can continue the trend with the Wii U it will be obvious that they’ll hit a broader market. However the announcement of the Wii U also came a video showing launch titles, many of which would have never previously made it to Nintendo’s console. It looks like Nintendo is trying to lure back the hardcore gaming crowd that it shunned when it re-imagined itself and that makes a long time fan like myself very happy indeed.
Of course the proof will be in the putting for the Nintendo Wii U and with the console not scheduled for release until sometime in 2012 we’ll be waiting a while before we can judge their attempt to claw back that niche that has slipped away from them. Whilst my Wii may sit next to my TV feeling woefully underused I get the feeling that its successor might not suffer the same fate and I’m excited at the possibility of Nintendo coming full circle and embracing those gamers who grew up with them. The possibility of it being a little media power house is just the icing on the cake, even if I might only end up using the controller through Bluetooth on my media PC.