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No Rest for the Kitschy at E For All

Img_0109_2It's hard to impart the true flavor of the E For All Expo without mentioning some of the non-stop goofiness that the vendors undertake in order to attract the fickle attention of the young and young-at-heart audience.

Weird stuff happens here, without much explanation.  For example, on the first day of the conference,  folks dressed in what looked like Hazmat suits went up on an elevated stage and started rapping (not very well, I'm sorry to say).

Img_0135_3 It can even get annoying: on Friday, Warhammer Online senior designer Josh Drescher was trying to explain some of the complex technical cat-and-mouse he's undertaken with the hackers who've figured out how to cheat in massively-multiplayer online role playing games like his, but he kept losing his train of thought because of the bagpipes and drum band blasting away on a stage nearby.  And how do they expect a person to get any serious gaming in with all this racket in the background, anyway?

Img_0129Img_0151 But in general, the booths are a lot of fun, sort of like Disneyland for video game nerds.  I had the chance to say hello to Ms. Pac-Man as well as an animal-skin clad couple who were promoting the latest version of Sid Meier's Civilization. 

And then there were the celebrity guests. With all due respect to professional athletes Derek Fisher and Corey Maggette, and Fatal1ty, the "cyberathlete," or professional video game player, who had his own booth and delivered a speech about the state of his sport, if anyone at the Expo had an electric presence approaching that of a rock star, it was a game designer, not a player.

Img_0182I'm talking about Koji Igarashi, producer of the Castlevania series. Fans were lined up about 100 deep Friday afternoon, snaking all the way around the Konami booth, for a chance to meet the man who had given them so many hours of thrills and chills.  Could "video game star" be a term that we now need?

Also worth mentioning is the impossible-to-ignore green screen booth, blasting the latest ad jingle about once a minute as brave souls danced around wildly in order to have a custom Core 2 Duo commercial made and presented to take home on a thumb drive.  I got out there on the green myself, dear reader, because I knew how much the Internet would enjoy my gangly, frenetic attempts at dancing -- but when I arrived home, I discovered that the techs had accidentally given me a thumb drive holding a demo for a Sony Ericsson  phone instead.  So much for Intel inside.

Disappointing, I know, but perhaps fortuitous in terms of preserving my dignity.  So you'll have to settle for images of some of the other attendees, good sports all. Enjoy.--Andrew Rosenblum

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Doctors Without Borders: Video Game Edition

Img_0194The strange alliance between medical technology and super-violent video games continues.  In addition to the Novint Falcon, an I/O device originally developed to convey tactile qualities of digital images to doctors, the E for All Expo also featured the 3rd Space FPS Vest, a device that delivers pressure to the body when a video game character gets shot.  Like the Falcon, the FPS Vest has medical origins—it was originally designed by Mark Ombrellaro, a practicing vascular surgeon from Bellevue, WA, as a way for doctors to perform examinations over the Internet.

"There's actually some similarities in skills between medicine and video games," Ombrellaro says, who started TN Games to market the entertainment version of the device.  "You have to be good with your hands—and there's also the science part."

Img_0201Img_0203Here's how Ombrellaro handles the science part with the vest: In response to real-time information from the game through a USB cable, the device sends up to 10 pounds of pressure from an air compressor to one or more of eight contact points in the front and back of the vest (you can see two of the points in the picture of the black vest).  Blasts of pressure can last up to five seconds.  TN Games will also be rolling out a different version of the vest with larger air bladders in it to simulate G-forces in driving and flight simulator games (it's the red one in the photo). TN Games has created a software API to help game developers integrate support for the vest into existing titles in what Ombrellaro estimates to be no more than a week of programming and beta testing.

Ombrellaro is still seeking government approval for the medical version of the vest, since he has to prove that remote examinations are as reliable for detecting disease states as an in-person one would be.  In the meantime, since the medical research gave rise to the video game tech, he hopes to re-direct some of the profits from the 3rd Space FPS Vest back into the medical side of the business.

But particularly as a follower of the Hippocratic Oath, does he worry that some resourceful, anarchic gamer might hack his vest to deliver pressure at unsafe levels? 

"We can't eliminate modding," Ombrellaro says.  "But we don't recommend it.  We make all sorts of warnings in our materials."

I consider myself warned—given how 12-year-olds were already kicking my butt in the various shooters on display at the Expo, the last thing I need to add to my humiliation are a bunch of bruises.—Andrew Rosenblum

Say Hello to My Little Friend

Pisto_grip Fans of the arcade classic Lethal Enforcers, with its blue and pink plastic guns, will be delighted at  recent advances in the realm of video game pistols.  The gun is still plastic, but now it's attached to the Novint Falcon, a complex I/O device that conveys tactile information from software to a set of motors in the the conical base, allowing the user to feel the computer's simulation of texture.  Pretty cool!  While Novint originally developed the device as a way for peripherals to respond to the tactile data in MRIs and other forms of medical imaging, earlier this year they released a version designed to kill off the traditional mouse, as falcons are wont to do. 

But now they're doing truly important work: making first-person shooters more realistic.  Here at the E for All Expo, they're showing off prototypes of pistol-grip attachments like the one above—the normal round grip swaps out for the pistol easily. And since Novint has modded Half Life Two to communicate with the gun, you get the experience of blasting away while contending with actual gun kick. The gun might be released commercially at the end of the year, or maybe sometime next year—they're still trying to decide how many buttons to have in addition to the trigger.

While the recoil isn't as strong as a real gun's would be, it's definitely palpable and it made me imagine future versions where shooter I/O gets even more tactile—for example, a gun might start heating up after repeated firing.  I asked Novint's Greg Schroeder to turn up the recoil to the highest level in software and unleash his inner Schwarzenegger for the camera.—Andrew Rosenblum

A Taste of Metal Gear Solid 4



One of the hottest exhibits on day one of the E for All Expo was for Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots. Its sinister, military-bunker booth was full all day and into the evening, in part because this is the first time anyone's been able to play the game outside of Japan.  Also, Kojima Productions tends to be secretive, which has apparently had the desired effect of driving its fans wild for the merest crumb.  Today's demo was a lot more than a crumb, though.

Img_0045_2 The folks waiting in line were about to enter a tiny briefing room blanketed in camo netting to learn how to play before getting an all-too-brief, 20-minute test drive.  (I was just starting to get the hang of the 8 different buttons and 360-degree visual scheme when I got the friendly tap on the shoulder).

As for the game itself, the thing that stands out is the meticulous attention to detail in rendering the environment.  (The developers mention offhandedly in an earlier demo that the hero's mustache has the same number of polygons as does an enemy soldier from MGS3).  Kojima has a staff of 200+ working on the game; even a background team that travels to undisclosed locations in Africa, the Middle East, and South America to take pictures of tiles, surfaces, and buildings that can then be rendered by the art department.  In all, the game covers five different geographical regions—although the company won't say which, to avoid angering the various governments that (quite reasonably) think an association with covert war might not be the best thing for their public image.

The goal is make the video game as much like a movie as possible, even if doing so has sent production costs into theStranglehold realm of what Kojima assistant producer Ryan Payton coyly describes as "tens of millions of dollars." Head designer Hideo Kojima and his team employ color filters to set mood, use discreet blurring behind foreground objects to create depth of field, and build off of the shadow rendering engine native to the PS3 to make the play of light more convincing. 

Still, juggling all of the graphical information has required Kojima's programmers to develop their own shadowing techniques in addition.  "With the PS3, we have the luxury of more polygons," says Payton.  "But it's not much easier to manage the polygons."

A programmer's task is never done, I suppose, but consider my disbelief suspended.  The realism of this simulated guerrilla combat comes through spectacularly, to an extent that can even be a bit chilling.—Andrew Rosenblum

E for All: The People's Expo

Img_0073_3PopSci reporter Andrew Rosenblum is currently blogging from the the Entertainment for All Expo, a four day gaming bonanza aimed at industry insiders and gamers alike and currently taking place in Los Angeles.

The Entertainment for All Expo touts itself as a video game show for the ordinary consumer, and that's both a weakness and a strength.  The Expo turns out to be more of a marketing event that helps the general consumer get up to speed with what's out there, and initially I was feeling a little let-down about the shortage of genuinely new tech on display.  Sure, there was some relatively new stuff like the HP Blackbird 002 PC, a slightly more-reasonably priced entrant into the custom gamer market with a clever thermal management design and "screwless" insides that allow you to swap in a new drive in  less than minute. 
Also, D-Box, the sit-down car simulator that vibrates when you crash or go off-road, had burly, middle-aged dudes as happy as a 10-year-old would be with the same material.  But even these two cool items had already debuted prior to the show.

Img_0043What is distinctive about E for All is the genuine excitement that a lot of the attendees bring. For the most part, the crowd doesn't consist of  cynical journalists, overworked developers, or nervous investors. Instead, these are people who love video games enough that they're willing to plunk down between $50 and $200 just for the chance to learn more about the industry and play some of the upcoming titles.

Speaking of which, one of the biggest coming down the pike is Rock Band, the follow-up to Guitar Hero that incorporates drums and vocals in addition to guitars (release is scheduled for next month).  The group captured below isn't  going to make anyone forget about Anthony Kiedis, but they do seem to be having fun—just maybe next time the frontman shouldn't try to sing and play guitar at the same time.—Andrew Rosenblum

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