Monthly Archives: May 2017

Gaming’s New Virtual Reality Frontier

We’re looking at some of the gadgets that perhaps got a little lost in the noise after CES in January but caught our eye, for better or worse. Among them are a 4-D arcade machine and a robot designed to carry all the things you don’t want to.

As ever, dear readers, this is not a review column, in part because these products have yet to reach the public sphere, but mostly because the chances of my actually ever using said products are slim. The ratings relate only to how much I’d like to try them, should the stars align.

Regular readers will know that I’ve played games my entire life. I hold deep reverence for the care and attention that go into creating these experiences, and I’ve rarely met a game I didn’t want to conquer.

Yet I am nervous about virtual reality. I’ve tried it and found those disorientating worlds difficult to handle, though I suspect that over time I could grow more accustomed to it. I doubt I could say the same for an arcade machine that both locks me into a VR world and pelts me with physical stimuli.

Koei Tecmo Wave’s VR Sense machine is a virtual reality arcade cabinet that houses you and subjects you to what I can only imagine is sheer torture. It has what Koei Tecmo Wave calls a “3D seat,” which attempts to draw players further into the games through touch, movement, aroma, wind, and temperature and precipitation changes. It’s not completely clear as yet whether you have to wear a headset for the full VR effect.

It’s launching with three games: a horse-riding simulator, a version of Koei Tecno Wave’s Dynasty Warrior franchise (with a stab at replicating in-game flames while you swelter in your moving chair), and a horror game.

I enjoy horror titles. However, I’d be less likely to welcome a VR horror game, as I’d probably come close to having a heart attack or three. There’s next to no chance I’d ever try Horror Sense.

That’s in large part due to the game apparently mimicking bugs falling from the ceiling and critters scuttling along the floor. I have a lot of questions about this, but ultimately, I’d tear off a VR headset in a second if I thought there were bugs falling on me while playing. No thank you, ma’am.

I’m happy to transport myself into different times and landscapes mentally if not physically. I may yet become a virtual reality convert — but for now I’m more than happy with a flat screen and a controller.

Rolling Repository

There is little I detest more, outside the realm of what certain parties are doing to the planet, than the act of carrying things. I truly despise it. I suppose in my heart of hearts I am a minimalist, and things get in the way constantly. It doesn’t help that I don’t have a car to dump purchases into on a shopping trip, or to hold my bag on the passenger seat.

Praise be to Piaggio Fast Forward, then, for its personal cargo robot, Gita. The machine can cart around up to 40 pounds of your things. It can follow you as you trudge home wearing a special belt that connects to Gita over WiFi and houses cameras to help Gita see where it’s headed.

Gita can move autonomously if has an area mapped out — though I suspect I would not be likely to let a Gita trundle around by itself lest someone smash it open to steal my water bottle or something.

There’s good news if you’re a cyclist, since Gita can travel at up to 22 miles per hour and has a zero turning radius. I’d love to have this little gizmo even to carry my wallet around instead of stuffing it in my pocket, though I admit I’d feel a little silly having a moving shopping dolly following me around.

For people who aren’t as carrying-averse as I am, there are some broader, practical benefits — like transporting groceries and having only the intended recipient able to open it, or moving goods around a hospital.

Postal workers might find it useful as well, especially since Piaggio is developing a bigger version, the Kilo, which can transport up to 200 pounds of goods.

Mostly, I’m just glad I may never again have to contend with twine bag handles tearing into my hands as I desperately speed home to unload my frightful burden.

Twitch For Gamers

The Amazon-owned live-streaming video platform, on Tuesday launched its highly anticipated online game store. It includes goodie bags and other incentives, both for gamers who take the plunge and streamers who provide the content.

Twitch earlier this year announced that it would be selling games and in-game content directly through the online store, competing directly with major gaming sites like Steam.

Twitch is starting out with about 50 titles, ranging from Ubisoft’s For Honor and Tom Clancy’s Ghost Room: Wildlands to Telltale Games’ The Walking Dead and Minecraft: Story Mode. Other titles include Digital Extremes’ Warframe and Campo Santo’s Firewatch.

Gamers can download their purchases using the Twitch App or through existing services like Uplay.

Streaming partners who participate in Twitch’s commerce program will earn a 5 percent commission when customers buy games or in-game items from their channel page.

Payments will be made to their Amazon accounts in U.S. dollars; Twitch will add support for other currencies in the coming months.

Candy for Everyone

Twitch has announced some incentives to encourage interest. Anyone who buys games or in-game items for US$4.99 or more gets a Twitch Crate, which includes randomly selected rewards such as emotes, badges and Bits for Cheering.

Anyone who makes a purchase that qualifies for a Twitch Crate up to May 1, will get an invitation to participate in drawings for gaming and streaming merchandise. They can submit their entries online.

However, the drawings are not limited to paying customers — anyone who wants to participate without making a purchase can send an entry via snail mail.

Four weekly drawings will be held, with prizes including Hyper X Cloud Gaming Headsets, G.Skill Ripjaws KM780 RGB Mechanical Gaming Keyboards, Logitech G533 Wireless Surround Sound Gaming Headsets and more. The grand prize consists of more than $500 worth of professional streaming equipment.Steam Slayer

The launch of the game store puts Twitch in direct competition with Steam, even though the game titles will be different, noted Kevin Krewell, principal analyst at Tirias Research.

“Unlike other services, the buyer is encouraged to watch a game stream before buying,” he told the E-Commerce Times. “It’s not quite try before you buy, but it does give the buyer the chance to see the game in action.”

The addition of an actual game store is a logical evolution for Twitch — one that should have been in the company’s long-term plans, observed Rob Enderle, principal analyst at the Enderle Group.

Given that users “will be watching and getting excited about games they haven’t purchased yet, it seems strange that the service took so long [to recognize] what should have been an obvious — until now missed — sales opportunity,” he told the E-Commerce Times.

“Some of these streams draw massive audiences of people [who] likely want to play what they are watching, and many of them could be turned into customers,” Enderle suggested.

Twitch’s strategy is to use gaming celebrities essentially to sell games, carving the path for full digital distribution down the road, noted Ted Pollak, senior gaming analyst at Jon Peddie Research.

The demand for the service is an indication of the increased popularity of the PC gaming market, he told the E- Commerce Times.

“A lot of people were wrong,” said Pollak. “They thought it was dying or not a huge business.”

The Historic Gaming Laptop Problem

I didn’t attend Computex this year, and that was sad for everything but my budget, because there was a ton of cool stuff announced at the show. Dell, HP and Lenovo showed off new designs that were both attractive and compelling. Mixed-reality headsets hit; based on Intel and Microsoft technology, they were far more affordable than the strong virtual reality stuff already in market (andsome aren’t bad looking). New core wars broke out, as AMD’s 16 Core Threadripper was challenged by Intel’s 18 core i9.

It seems that gaming was huge at Computex this year. The product — or the concept really — that stood out most to me was Nvidia’s Max-Q gaming laptop concept, which promises a gaming laptop with dimensions that would rival a MacBook Air.

I’ll focus on that this week and close with my product of the week: the new smartphone that Apple is working furiously to kill before it can be launched (which is why I immediately ordered one).

The Historic Gaming Laptop Problem

Here is the deal — I love to play games both at home and when I travel, and I tend to lock in on one game and play it to death. I’d rather do that than watch TV — yes, I’m a tad addicted.

Currently my game of choice is Ashes of the Singularity, which has as a core plot element the birth of a true artificial intelligence that identifies as female. We try and fail to kill her — which, as you might expect, pisses her off and results in some epic battles.

You get to play both sides, and the combination of story and gameplay creates what is an interesting combination of energetic place, strategic thinking and story ideas. (I’m trying to write my first science fiction book.)

The problem is, this game needs a decent graphics processing unit, and that means it won’t work on most lightweight laptops using Intel’s graphics solution. The game won’t even load. However, gaming laptops tend to have two problems: They are heavier, and you pay a huge penalty in battery life. The latter is the bigger problem, because I’m expected to work when I travel, and it is damned hard to work with a dead battery.

Recently I’ve started using the Microsoft Surface Book with the second-generation base, which has both a GPU and decent battery life (10-plus hours), but it is a middleweight, and it barely has enough power to run the game.

What I wanted seemed impossible: something that was very light, had decent battery life, and enough power to really enjoy a game like Ashes of the Singularity. Enter the Max-Q.

Nvidia’s Max-Q

I really didn’t see this coming, but Nvidia announced its prototype Max-Q, a design for a gaming laptop that is as thin as a MacBook Air, in the ultra-light class of notebooks. It sports 1080-level graphics, which is the baseline for gaming that’s more typical on a desktop computer.

If you are like me, you likely are wondering about how this thing will be cooled — largely because if you combine a thin laptop with lots of performance, the little fans that have to keep the thing cool start sounding like jet engine. That doesn’t bode well for meetings or using in the same room with your spouse.

Nvidia’s WisperMode technology keeps that fan noise down to a minimum, unless you are really stressing the system. Overall, there has been a ton of effort on fan acoustics for both laptops and desktop computers. While not totally eliminating the sound, these advances certainly have reduced it to far more acceptable levels (and you really shouldn’t be gaming in meetings, or with your spouse in the room anyway).

Battery Life

One thing we don’t know about yet is battery life, and that likely won’t be something I can chat about until the manufacturers start sharing what they are building. Lenovo is one of them, and it typically places battery life very high on its list of requirements. If anyone produces a perfect laptop with all of this and 10-plus hours of battery life, my early bet is that it is likely to be Lenovo.

Keep your eyes on Alienware, though, as the most powerful gaming computer company in the segment. It’s also on the list of firms building Max-Q solutions. I’ll touch on this once I’m released from related NDAs or at product launch in a few weeks. (Actual products launch on June 27, which, coincidently, is exactly a month to the day before my birthday. Hint, hint…)

More Speed, More Muscle

The new Xbox One X, which goes on sale Nov. 7 for US$499, is slimmer than previous models and packed with power.

With a 6-teraflop Scorpio engine, the One X has 40 percent faster graphics performance than its chief rival, Sony’s PS4 Pro.

The custom Scorpio engine in the Microsoft box burns chrome at 1172 MHz — a 37 percent increase over its predecessor, Xbox One, and 28 percent faster than PS4 Pro.

Since the inside of a console can get hot running at those speeds, Xbox engineers kept things cool with a liquid-cooled vapor chamber, a technology used on high octane PC gaming cards.

“They went for the most performance they could possibly get out it,” he told TechNewsWorld.

Performance prowess, though, is just one factor contributing to success in the console market.

Traditionally, game content drives the purchase and upgrades of game consoles, explained Brett Sappington, director of research at Parks Associates. Sony leads the console market in exclusive game content, and nothing yet from E3 indicates that advantage to have changed.

“Though there are improvements in power, the Xbox One X does not offer any new differentiating features to drive purchases. Essentially, it is a more powerful Xbox One S,” he told TechNewsWorld.

“The PS4 still offers a variety of features that are not available in the Xbox One X, such as remote play and VR,” Sappington continued, “and the Nintendo Switch differentiates itself with its motion controllers, haptic feedback technology, and TV-connected-to-portable functionality

Like its predecessor, One X has a 4K UHD Blu-ray player, built-in power supply, three USB 3.0 ports (one in the front and two in the back) and an IR blaster.

The 4K UHD Blu-ray player remains a strength of the Xbox over PS4, observed Michael Inouye, principal analyst at ABI Research.

“The PS4 Pro only includes a standard Blu-ray drive, which did engender some complaints from the Sony faithful,” he told TechNewsWorld.

“Even if the consumer isn’t planning to buy or rent UHD Blu-ray discs,” Inouye continued, “it does complete the picture of a true 4K media player-gaming machine, which speaks to the product’s image.”

All existing Xbox One games, including Xbox Play Anywhere titles, are compatible with the One X. In addition, a number of existing games are being enhanced for the new console. They include Gears of War 4Forza Horizon 3MinecraftResident Evil 7Final Fantasy 15 and Rocket League. What’s more, a true 4K version of Forza Motorsport 7 will be available Oct. 3.

Backward compatibility gives the Xbox a feature that PS4 doesn’t have, but that omission didn’t prevent Sony’s console from outselling the Xbox One, noted Parks’ Sappington.

“Backward compatibility eliminates a potential barrier to purchase, but it does not provide an incentive to purchase the Xbox One X over the Xbox One S,” he said.

“Backward compatibility is a nice-to-have feature which resonates with some vocal Xbox users,” said Piers Harding-Rolls, head of games research at IHS Markit.

Still, “it is a value-added proposition and not a system seller,” he told TechNewsWorld.

Online Gaming

Pricing could be a problem for the One X. It’s $100 more than the PS4, and a $50 price break on the Sony console is likely around the time Microsoft’s new console is scheduled to reach retailers, according to Sappington.

“For the mainstream consumers or more casual gamers, the additional power likely won’t resonate with them as much as those more deeply rooted into the hobby,” ABI’s Inouye said. “Plus, if they don’t have a 4K TV, they might feel even less compelled to upgrade, even though there are some benefits for 1080p sets as well.”

The One X’s pricing is OK for the unit’s target audience, maintained IHS’ Harding-Rolls.

“Even if the price point was revealed to be higher than $499, we did not expect this to impact sales of the console at launch,” he said. “Xbox enthusiasts will pay significant sums to get hold of the latest and greatest.”

Microsoft will sell 500,000 One X’s during this year’s fourth quarter, Harding-Rolls predicted.

In addition to its Xbox consoles, Microsoft has Xbox Live — a large online network for playing games. The network uses dedicated servers to enhance performance, speed and reliability.

“I would expect that by now Microsoft would be pushing more for online gaming and streaming, and they’re not,” said McGregor, who is also an Xbox owner.