SpaceX’s Dragon capsule has proved to be an incredibly capable craft. Ever since it made it’s debut journey to the International Space Station back in 2012 the craft has made another 3 trips as part of the Commercial Resupply Services contract that SpaceX has with NASA. Should all things go to plan then 2014 will be the Dragon’s busiest year yet with a grand total of 4 launches planned, 3 of those to occur within a couple months of each other. Still the current Dragon is only half the puzzle for SpaceX as whilst it’s quite capable of delivering cargo to the ISS the human carrying variant has remained as a concept for quite some time. However that all changed last week when SpaceX announced the Dragon V2 capsule.
The original Dragon capsule was readily comparable to Soyuz and Apollo style craft, except for the fact that it couldn’t carry a single human into or back from orbit. The Dragon V2 on the other hand is really unlike any other craft, being able to carry up to 7 astronauts (equal to that of the Space Shuttle) and also with the capability to soft land anywhere on Earth within a very small area. That’s something that no other craft has ever been able to boast previously as even the venerable Space Shuttle required a runway to land and there were only 2 places on Earth capable of receiving it. Other notable improvements include fully automated docking and the world’s first fully 3D printed rocket engine, the SuperDraco.
Inside the capsule is when things start to get really impressive. however. If you’ve ever seen the inside of a Soyuz capsule you’ll know things are pretty tight in there and the Dragon V2 isn’t that much bigger. The interior design of the Dragon is where the big differences come in to play as you can see in the screen capture above. That giant screen flips down from the ceiling, making ingress and egress from the capsule extremely easy whilst at the same time providing a lot more room inside the capsule than you’d traditionally see in a craft of this nature. I’m guessing that they’re likely touchscreens as well, providing an incredible amount of flexibility in turns of what those panels can be capable of.
The ability to land anywhere in the world, even on land, is a pretty incredible achievement for SpaceX. Right now when astronauts and cosmonauts come back from space they come back on what’s called a ballistic trajectory, I.E. they’re falling to the ground like a rock. The Soyuz capsules have “soft landing” rockets which fire moments before they hit the ground to reduce the impact however they still get rolled head over heels several times before coming to a complete stop. The Dragon V2 is luxury by comparison, able to come to a soft landing right side up every time. Whilst many of the launches and landings will occur at the same places (due to orbital mechanics for the most part) the ability to land somewhere else, especially in an emergency, is an incredibly useful feature to have.
If everything goes perfectly we could see the first unmanned demonstration flight of the new Dragon capsule towards the end of next year with the first crewed mission coming in 2016. That’s likely to slip, something which NASA is prepared for as they have secured spots on Soyuz craft through 2017, but even that is a pretty incredible turnaround for a manned craft. Indeed SpaceX will achieved in under 20 years what many government agencies took far longer to accomplish and it seems like they have no intention of slowing down.
There’s a lot of tech that comes out these days that seems incredibly obvious in retrospect, enough so that sometimes it seems like companies are reading your mind for ideas. I do this a lot although I also tend to think that there’s usually a reason why those innovations never see the light of day. I remember thinking a long time ago, a time when I was more intimately acquainted with the internals of my car’s engine bay than I am today, that the engine valves on engines could be independently driven rather than using the camshaft like most do today. As it turns out there’s actually been quite a bit of development work in this area with a few camless engines in production today. None of them are as cool as the technology that Koenigsegg has developed however as their camless engines could prove revolutionary for the entire auto industry:
So the gear heads among you will probably be aware of things like VTEC and VVT-i which have been the standard way to give cars good fuel economy at the low end whilst also allowing them to achieve better acceleration and top speed. The Free Valve technology is like the next step in that technology allowing you to have almost limitless numbers of valve profiles. Additionally the response curve of the valves is very different to what you’d traditionally see, something which I didn’t think would provide any benefit. As the video dives into though you can see that there’s numerous advantages to this type of valve control system. Showing it running on a production model Saab was quite impressive too as it shows that it wasn’t just a concept technology that would never see the real world.
What really got me though was the Free Valves ability to hook up to a compressed air tank. It’s akin to the regenerative braking systems that electric and hybrid vehicles employ today except this one works on cars that don’t use electric propulsion. It’s a powerful idea for a couple reasons, most notably that you could use this to overcome the most inefficient periods of an internal combustion engine, namely acceleration and idle. Of course there’s also the flip side of it being used to make high performance cars even faster something which I’m sure will make its way into the next generation Koenigsegg supercars.
I’m still an advocate for an all electric future, at least for consumer level transportation, but technology like this is still incredibly useful for where electric simply doesn’t make sense. Hopefully this tech will make its way down to production cars sooner rather than later as even if those savings are only half what they claim they are that’s still an incredible amount of greenhouse gasses not entering the atmosphere. Plus I’m sure everyone would be welcoming of cars that use less fuel but provide more power as I know I certainly would.
I have a lot of respect for fine engineering. It doesn’t matter what field it comes from either as I find there’s an elegance about things that have been so well planned, designed and the implemented. I recently came across this video that show cases the world’s smallest V12 engine, all hand made (apart from the screws). It’s a bit lengthy but I was mesmerized by it, loving the incredible attention to detail and the beauty of something so complex coming together so well.
I think it also plays into my not-so-secret love of steampunk stuff, what with all the elaborate metalwork and interconnecting parts.
It’s hard to believe that it’s been a good 7 years since we saw a release from the famous id Software developers. For a company that had regular releases every 2 to 3 years for almost 2 decades prior the silence from them was rather unusual, sparking rumours that they were in a Duke Nukem Forever situation. Still their tech demos of the new id Tech 5 engine that was powering their next game showed that they were making progress and that has culminated in their next game release: Rage. After a good 12 hours or so with it over the past couple weeks I’m in two minds about id’s latest game, or more aptly their latest engine.
Rage puts you about 130 odd years into the future into a post apocalyptic world that’s been ravaged by the 99942 Apophis. Now the space nerds amongst us will recognise that that is a very real asteroid and whilst we’ve since eliminated the prospect of it hitting earth in 2029 as the game predicts it was none the less a gripping hook to get me into the story. You play as Daniel Tosh, one of the chosen few to be buried in a capsule with other survivors in cryogenic suspension, only to wake a century after the impact has occured in order to rebuild humanity. When you wake however you find that the pod malfunctioned and you’re the only survivor out of your particular ark and the world that you’ve come out in is a desolate wasteland.
Now Rage has copped a lot of flak for the absurdly broken release that it had on PC and when I first played it I was no exception. There was massive amounts of tearing, models glitching in and out of sight and textures not rendering properly or at the incorrect level of detail. The first patch plus a new round of ATI drivers fixed most of those problems making the game playable but it wasn’t until a friend of mine linked me to this post on the steam forums that Rage actually began to shine. After applying the new config the game was absolutely beautiful, both visually and performance wise with my computer running everything at absolute maximum settings I never had an performance problems. Rage still didn’t like to be alt-tabbed however as that would bring back tearing with mad vengeance. Such problems did not plague the console release however, so their launch day experience was probably much better.
Rage is very much like Borderlands in that it fuses RPG elements with FPS game play. The main story line is driven via quests given to you by various NPC characters and there’s a multitude of side quests that won’t further the plot but will get you things to help you along your journey. There’s no skill trees or levels per say but you will acquire various upgrades that will help to make the game easier. Most of the weapons have some form of upgrade but they’re usually not that useful, especially once you pick up certain weapons like the sniper rifle or the Authority Machine Gun. There’s also a crafting system that allows you to concoct all sorts of interesting things and, thankfully, there’s no limit on the amount of stuff you can carry so you can always have what you need when you need it.
The game play in Rage is divided into 2 distinct categories: the vehicle sections and then your typical FPS run and gun. The vehicle sections, as pictured above, serve as being a break between quests where you’ll be accosted by bandits in the wasteland. There’s also a series of jump challenges scattered around the place for you to attempt, but since they give no reward apart from possibly an achievement there’s no real incentive to go for them. Your vehicle can also be upgraded with “Race Certificates” won from races or given as rewards to quests. Some of these races are fun (like the rocket races, where you get to blow your opponents up) where as others just feel like a chore. I only spent the bare minimum amount of time on the races however as once you’ve got the few key upgrades there’s no incentive to keep doing them.
The FPS component of Rage is a pretty typical affair, being a somewhat cover based shooter with the added advantage of you being able to heal and also revive yourself should you end up being overwhelmed. For the most part its quite servicable as you can choose to either strut out into the open and keep yourself healed with bandages (of which you can make an almost unlimited amount of) or pick people off from behind cover. The additional secondary weapons like the wingsticks (basically a bladed boomerang) and sentry bots help to keep the combat interesting and can be the difference between making it through alive or reloading your save for the nth time.
There are however a couple glitches in the combat system that need mentioning. If you’re say unloading shell after shell into an enemy whilst they’re doing a particular animation there’s no indication as to whether you’ve killed them or not. This becomes rather irritating when the death animations for some NPCs closely resemble that of them stumbling after taking a big hit, leading you to waste countless rounds in order to just make sure that they’re down. There’s also the fact that headshots, even with the sniper rifle, don’t usually one shot enemies like they usually do. This isn’t a glitch per say more of an annoyance as that one carefully lined up shot has to be two carefully lined up shots which you don’t usually have the luxury of taking.
The story that had such a gripping hook at the start is unfortunately quite thin on the ground with your character’s motivations for doing what he’s doing coming from other people telling him what to do constantly. Although the world is meant to feel open ended the story, and all of the missions, are completely linear with no real options for going at something another way. Rage’s storyline also suffers from major pacing problems as well, especially towards the end when you’re suddenly plonked onto the final mission with little more notice than the title of the mission indicating that it might be a one way trip. The end boss fight, if you could call it that, also pales in comparison to some of the other boss fights in the game leaving you feel like you’ve missed something along the way. Ultimately the intial hook that got me in was the pinnacle of the storytelling in Rage and that’s very disappointing.
Rage has its moments as a game but ultimately it feels more like a 12 hour tech demo than it does a fully fledged game that took 7 years to build. I would usually let id off the hook on this one since they’d be licensing their engine (which is a technical marvel) and thus the game wasn’t their main focus but outside of Zenimax companies (id’s parent company) the id Tech 5 engine won’t be available for licensing. Thus for the foreseeable future the only 2 games that will use this engine will be Rage and Doom 4, which is a shame because once it’s set up right it’s quite spectacular. Rage then as a game is a FPS/RPG hybrid that manages to deliver sometimes but suffers from multiple problems that detract from the technical beauty that it contains.
Rage is available on PC, Xbox360 and PlayStation 3 right now for $108, $108 and $88 respectively. Game was played entirely on the PC with around 12 hours of total play time and 46% of the achievements unlocked.
The current way of accessing space isn’t sustainable if we want to make it as a space fairing species. Whilst the methods we use today are proven and extremely reliable they are amongst the most inefficient ways of lifting payload into orbit around our planet, requiring craft that are orders of magnitude larger than the precious cargo they carry. Unfortunately the alternatives haven’t been too forthcoming, due in part to nuclear technologies being extremely taboo and the others still being highly theoretical. Still even highly theoretical ideas can have a lot of merit especially if they have smaller aspects that can be tested and verified independently, giving the overall theory some legs to stand on.
I’ve talked before about the idea of creating a craft that uses only a single stage to orbit (SSTO), in essence a craft that has only one complete stage and conceivably makes extensive use of traditional aerodynamic principles to do away with a lot of the weight that conventional rockets have. My proposal relied on two tested technologies, the scramjet and aerospike engine, that would form the basis of a craft that would be the Model T equivalent for space travel; in essence opening up space access to anyone who wanted it. In all honesty such a craft seeing reality is a long way off but that doesn’t mean people aren’t investigating the idea of building a SSTO craft using different technologies.
One such company is Reaction Engines, a name that I was only marginally familiar with before. They’ve got a proposal for a SSTO craft called Skylon that uses a very interesting engine design that combines both an air breathing jet engine as well as a traditional rocket motors. The design recently passed its first technical review with flying colours and could see prototypes built within the decade:
They want the next phase of development to include a ground demonstration of its key innovation – its Sabre engine.
This power unit is designed to breathe oxygen from the air in the early phases of flight – just like jet engines – before switching to full rocket mode as the Skylon vehicle climbs out of the atmosphere.
It is the spaceplane’s “single-stage-to-orbit” operation and its re-usability that makes Skylon such an enticing prospect and one that could substantially reduce the cost of space activity, say its proponents.
The engine they’re proposing, called Sabre, has an extremely interesting design. At lower speeds it functions much like a normal jet engine however as speeds approach Mach 5, the point at which my hand waving design would switch to a scramjet, it continues to operate in much the same fashion. They do however employ a very exotic cooling system so that the engine doesn’t melt in the 1000+ degree heat that would be blasting the components and once Skylon is out of the atmosphere it switches to a normal rocket engine to finish off the job.
The issues I see, that face nearly all SSTO designs, is the rule of 6 for getting to orbit. The rule simply states that at Mach 6 at 60,000 feet you have approximately 6% of the total energy required to make it successfully to orbit. Skylon’s engines operate in the jet mode all the way up to Mach 5 to an altitude of 85,000 feet which is no small feet in itself, but it’s still a far cry from the total energy required. It is true though that the first stages of any rocket are the most inefficient and eliminating them by using the atmosphere for both oxidiser and thrust could prove to be a real boon for delivering payloads into orbit. Still whether this will be practical with Skylon and the Sabre engine remains to be seen but there are tests scheduled for the not too distant future.
Walking through unknown territory like this is always fraught with unknowns so it’s no wonder that the team at Reaction Engines has been met with such skepticism over their idea. Personally I’m still on the fence as their technology stack is still mostly unproven but I applaud their vision for wanting to build the first SSTO craft. I’d love to see the Skylon making trips to the International Space Station, effectively replacing the shuttle and extending the ISS’ lifetime but until we see some more proof that their concept works I’m going to be skeptical, but it won’t take much to make into a believer
I’m pretty indiscriminate when it comes to my gaming platforms. I’ve got every current generation console in my house including one of each of the hand helds. So when I want to play a game that’s got a cross platform release I’ll usually take a look at how each of them are reviewing and choose the highest rated platform. Dragon Age: Origins was a great example of this as the reviews of the console versions were a lot worse than its PC counter part and I can only imagine how the problems I encountered on the PC would be magnified by running it on a console. Still there’s one platform that I’ve always considered second rate when compare to any of the other consoles I have; my iPhone. I’ve still got quite a collection of games on there but apart from Plants vs Zombies none of them could be classed above a simple time waster. That is until I bought Infinity Blade.
Infinity Blade has garnered quite a lot of press since its initial release 3 months ago as it’s the first game ever on iOS to make use of the Unreal 3 engine. The teaser screenshots released by EPIC and Chair showed that the Unreal engine had the potential to deliver much better graphics to the iOS platform, bringing the iPhone’s capabilities up to the level of dedicated gaming systems. Since all the 3D games I had tried thus far on my iPhone had been rather poor I was keen to see how Infinity Blade faired, and I wasn’t disappointed.
You play as the son of an unnamed warrior who has been killed by one of the Deathless, an immortal race of beings that appear to hold control over parts of the mortal world. Your mission is to fight your way through the various enemies that guard the Deathless’ castle so you can avenge your father. Of course you’ll probably not succeed the first time through and you will fall to the Deathless again, leaving your son to avenge you and starting the cycle anew. Over the course of the game you’ll find gold, items and health potions that will help your character along the way and these will be passed down the bloodline to successive characters.
The game doesn’t fail to impress from the get go with the gorgeous graphics filling the screen. The voice acting of the characters is done in much the same way as the Sims, being some incomprehensible gibberish that allows them to just put sub-titles on everything to make regionalization easy, but that doesn’t stop them from being adequately emotive. In-between bouts of combat you’re allowed to look around for items, chests and bags of gold that have been left lying around. You’re not able to walk freely around in Infinity Blade with travel being done by clicking on a pulsing circle to progress to the next area.
Combat in Infinity Blade is probably the most satisfying aspect of the game. Upon encountering an enemy you’re left standing in front of them until you hit the pulsing blue circle to engage with them. Upon doing so you’ll be greeted with a short cut-scene where the enemy shows off how tough they are. You’re then playing a game of dodging, parrying or blocking their incoming swings whilst attempting to hit back with swings of your own. As combat progresses you’ll move around the area you’re in, ensuring that no fight is completely static. You’re also equipped with 2 special abilities, a “super move” which will stun your enemy temporarily and a magic move which can be one of a number of spells which are granted to you through rings.
Like any good RPG the game also has a basic stat system along with a good variety of loot to augment your character with. Initially I thought it was going to be your typical dungeon crawler with all loot gathered from mobs and chests however there’s an in-game store where you can buy new weapons and armor using gold. You’ll want to do this often because as you defeat enemies you gain experience points which are attributed to your weapons and eventually you’ll master them after which they won’t grant you any more experience points. Still I found myself sticking with a few core items well after I had mastered them simply because they made the game so easy, but its quite obvious that the game would prefer you gradually upgrade rather than jump the gun like I did.
After a while however the limited variety in game play does tend to drag a bit, especially when the only challenging enemy is the Deathless and the next upgrade costs half a million gold to buy. You can get around this drag by buying a sack of gold in the store for real money, but that will only stave off the boredom until the shininess wears off your new gear. That’s not to say the game isn’t worth playing at all however as I was truly captivated for the first 5 bloodlines as I attempted to slay the Deathless that had killed my great-great-great grandfather. After that however it’s just an elaborate game of digital Barbie, looking for new items to dress up my character with.
Infinity Blade is pretty good with its execution too with the only problems I encountered being things they could not fix. Initially I couldn’t get the game past the first few loading screens but after rebooting my iPhone it went along without a hitch. Additionally I found the game’s recognition of touches and gestures to be a bit wonky at times, however this is probably more due to my notorious sweaty hands than any fault of the game developers. The iPhone can get extremely warm after a 10 minute bout in Infinity Blade so I’m sure I’m not the only one experiencing this, but there’s little any developer could do to alleviate it.
Overall I was very satisfied with Infinity Blade and the experience it created. Whilst it’s still a far cry from the games I’ve been enamored with on other mobile platforms Infinity Blade demonstrates that smart phones and tablets are quite capable of being used as a portable gaming console, something which I didn’t quite believe it was capable of. Whilst I don’t believe we’ll see any titles that can hold a candle to the releases on a fully fledged console or PC there’s still a ton of potential to be unlocked in this space and Infinity Blade has shown it can be quite profitable even for more traditional game development studios.
Infinity Blade is available on most iOS devices right now at the special price of $2.99 for the Deathless Kings upade. Game was played on an iPhone 3GS with approximately 7 hours played.