Project Natal

Project Natal was announced by Microsoft at E3 as new interface peripheral for the Xbox 360, which removes the need for a joypad, instead body movement, facial recognition and voice are used for interaction.

We have seen similar innovations with the EyeToy for the PS2 and the notion detection in the Wii, but both have severe limitations. The EyeToy is a single lens camera, so it is easily affected by lighting and background, while the motion detection in the Wii is built into the joypad and has limited capabilities by default.

The demo shown at E3 is jaw dropping, showing seemingly natural interaction with a character called Milo, but anyone with any experience of Microsoft demos treats them with appropriate levels of scepticism. Since they haven’t beaten the Turing test there is certainly some smoke and mirrors going on, in the words of Milo’s creator Peter Molyneux “If we had, then applying it to a computer game would be the last of the solutions we’d use it for.”

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Other demos include a painting application and a dodgeball style game. They are relatively low tech examples but the dodgeball game has been demonstrated with journalists and celebrities, and has appeared to withstand their scrutiny. Interestingly Endgadget’s demo turned the lights down to see if it can cope with different lighting, and it had no problems.

Although shy on the details Microsoft have said it contains an RBG camera, an infrared camera, a multi-array microphone and a depth map. New Scientist among others suggested it is using the infrared camera technology by 3DV, an Israeli company that Microsoft purchased. This heat detection allows it to maintain a level of functionality regardless of light sources or obstacles.

Project Natal claims to have facial recognition and voice recognition, but we’ve only really seen this in the Milo demonstration, which could have been entirely scripted. So the extent of this capability is still not fully understood, although the voice recognition is based on Windows 7 functionality.

While Natal does recognise actions sitting down, a notable thing from the demos is the space of the room they were demoing in. When you use your whole body as a controller you need enough space to do so. A bit like Wii Fit, removing the traditional controller can pose logistical problems for the smaller household; for me my living room becomes more like an obstacle course.

Paradoxically playing a game with your body rather than your thumbs can be both more intuitive and harder work. I am old enough that can still remember my initial awkwardness interacting with a computer mouse or a console joypad, even though it seems like second nature now. However this hurdle is removed by Natal, making gaming and potentially all human-computer interaction much more accessible and intuitively responsive to an even wider audience, although it lacks the feedback a physical peripheral affords.

If I sat playing Burnout as it has been demonstrated with Natal my arms would ache after a while. But one thing I do know from marathon Guitar Hero sessions is that I will play through most aches for the right game. Interestingly a great many of the games we play allow us to explore far beyond our own physical limitations, so I wonder where the disparity is between simulation and escapism and what we desire from our gaming experience.

I don’t think we will be getting rid of the joystick anytime soon, but this definitely opens the door to new kinds of games and game play that we haven’t seen before. Its greatest potential is in the creative and imaginative hands of games and software designers everywhere.

Sharing media on your network with your Xbox 360

Ok I have had some real fun with getting my XBox to see my XP desktop. It was easy enough to get it to see my Vista laptop after I set up Windows Media Centre (WMC), and although WMC sees everything on my network it has no supports for DivX, so doesn’t really meet my needs.

Diagram of wireless network sharing media with XBox 360

Diagram of XBox on wireless network, but media sharing can be on wired or wireless network.

However playing video through the XBox dashboard does have DivX support, but this way it only finds files that are local to my laptop and I wanted it to see my whole network. It wasn’t as straight forward as it should have been so here is my quick guide on how I managed to get it working. It’s not the only way, there are 3rd party tools out there.

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Sharing media

Firstly you need to share the media from your XP machine. To do this you need Windows Media Player 11 (WMP11). WMP11 adds a bit of Vistas functionality into XP, so under Library>Media Sharing… click the checkbox and allow access to the XBox 360.

Problem 1
This didn’t work straight off for me, it just hung for ages and then nothing happened, no sharing and no error.

Solution 1
Check which services are running. Start>Admin tools>Services. You need to make sure UPnP and SSDP are both started and set to Manual, also check Windows Media Player Network Sharing Service is started and set to Automatic.

Problem 2
Once I’d done this I was able to share my media and allow my XBox. However my XBox still refused to see my XP machine on the network. So my PC could see the XBox but the XBox wasn’t seeing the PC. After a bit of reading around online and trying loads of stuff it became clear DRM was the issue. WMP11 DRM doesn’t work properly, it makes sense then that the XBox which is DRM’d up to it’s eyeballs would start having issues.

Solution 2
Clear out the existing DRM data. You need to set your Folder Views to include System files. Then navigate to Documents and Settings>All Users> DRM and delete all files.

Then go this link in Internet Explorer:
http://drmlicense.one.microsoft.com/Indivsite/en/indivit.asp?force=1

If ActiveX blocked you’ll need to allow it, once that’s done the greyed out Upgrade button should become clickable. Click it and what for the process to run then close the box. Reboot PC (definately) and XBox (possibly). After this the XBox detected the PC and media sharing was enabled.

All credit goes to @DocJelly and his amazing blog post for this solution.

Problem 3
This was a fairly simple problem to solve. The XBox doesn’t see folders that are shared on the networking the same way and WMC does, it only see the folders that are part of your shared WMP11 Library.

Solution 3
In WMP11 go to Library>Add to Library…

Add any folders with media that you want to share and click OK, it can take a while for your PC to catalogue the new folders and files.

Ongoing Issues
The Windows Media Player Network Sharing Service is a memory hog, so it may be worth disabling sharing if you aren’t using it frequently.

Even with WMP11 Library I’ve found it a little unpredictable about what the XBox will and won’t see. This might be because files are still being catalogued, so I’ll give it a bit longer before I investigate further.

Ada Lovelace Day: Molly E. Holzschlag

If you are reading this then you are probably already aware of Ada Lovelace Day, but just in case; it is a day dedicated to blogging about women we admire in technology:

I'm choosing to write about Molly E. Holzschlag, and why I admire her. (Disclaimer: fangirl moments are therefore to be expected).

Molly Holzschlag

I've been working with the web for all of my professional career and it became very clear, very quickly that web standards were fundamental in making writing code easier, while more importantly being necessary to create an open and accessible web that was capable of what we hoped and imagined it could do. Although she doesn't know it Molly has been with me every step of my journey, writing about best practice and web standards, shaping the way I and many others work. I started way back with a HTML and CSS textbook and A List Apart and WaSP.

Molly was leader of WaSP (Web Standards Project) from early 2004 through to the end of 2006 and in that time drove real change by recognising that it is not enough to be evangelical about your subject, you need to make connections with and influence those that create the tools and the code inorder to affect the change you want. She helped build relations with Macromedia to influence the tool that web designers were using, and connections with Microsoft to help improve the browser that most people were using. Coming from a history of hacking Dreamweaver to try and force it to write valid XHTML while struggling with browser inconsistencies, it was good to know someone was talking to these corporate giants and refusing to be ignored.

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In 2007 Molly worked with Microsoft to help try and improve web standards support in IE, which filled me with hope despite the mammoth task; anyone who has worked in a large organisation will know they are difficult beasts to change. But she was never afraid to ask the awkward questions even to the man at the top: http://molly.com/2006/12/14/who-questions-bill-gates-commitment-to-web-standards/

Last month she moved to Opera, which I can only imagine to be a complete change and I look forward to seeing what work comes out from that, when she can achieve so much in the face of such adversity I really have to wonder what might be done in a company that offers support for those ideals.

However the reason I admire Molly goes beyond her hard work with web standards, it is also about her ability to build connections; her openess and honesty that comes across online. She doesn't fall into the traps of just code samples (although these have their place), single-minded ranting or blindly insisting that everything worked well, but has an ability to see the bigger picture and to enlighten us in such a way that motivates us to join her in trying to make the web better. Thanks Molly.

But Molly isn't the only woman I admire working in technology although she may be among the most renowned, so I'd like to take this chance to give a bit of recognition to a few others as well:

  • Beatriz Stollnitz (nee Costa) – Part of Microsoft's WPF team, and the go to gal on Databinding. Also a lovely person who was kind enough to let me pick her brainss at TechEd 2006.
  • Sarah Blow – Founder of Girl Geek Dinners and developer. Has always been supportive and helpful in my quest to get Girl Geek Dinners in Nottingham up and running again.
  • Leah Culver – developer at Six Apart, but one of the few female technical speakers I've seen at a conference, thanks in part to her work on Pownce with Kevin Rose.
  • Jo Stray – I've worked with Jo for sometime now and her indepth understanding of usability has been a great guiding compass for me.
  • Susan Hallam – A fountain of knowledge about all things SEO.
  • Aleks Krotoski – Games journalist at the Guardian, but it was her work on Bits many moons ago that had the most impact on me personally, as I realised that girl gamers were more prolific than I knew and they were smart and entertaining too.
  • Jemima Kiss – Tech and media journalist at the Guardian and prolific twitterer, she has an understanding of the web and an ability to write about it coherently and convincingly.
  • Nichola Musgrove – The first designer I worked with, when I was just starting out, she was a great mentor.
  • Amanda Gaynor – One of the few women developers I've had the priveledge of working with. Her enthusasm for her subject and her compassion make me honoured to also have her as a friend.
  • Alice Taylor – By day she is the Commissioning Editor for Education at Channel 4, but I have followed Alice more for her fellow game girl status and her ability to blog about the way gaming influences a wider culture, especially crafty gamers. It might be niche, but it's my niche.
  • Leisa Reichelt – I first heard Leisa talk at FOWA about ambient intimacy which beautifully described the changing way in which we interact, but more than that her work and approach have informed my own, especially in regards to her enthusiasm for agile user centred design.
  • Danah Boyd – Writes about the social side of the web, particularly in regards to teenagers. Some very interesting and well informed writing.
  • Emma Jane – The woman to speak to about anything front end Drupal based.
  • Jean Baird – A photgrapher, but single-handedly responsible for getting me interested in semantics, back in 1999, way before I'd even heard of the Semantic Web.

2008 Technology Retrospective

This is a personal retrospective on technologies that had a significant impact on my life over the last 12 months, that is to say they are not necessarily new technologies, or even new to me, but the way that I use them has dramatically changed or had a significant impact that wasn't there before.

Podcast logo

Podcasts

In 2008 I've got into downloading and listening to podcasts. The main barrier to entry for me had been finding the quality content, but I found the Guardian Tech Weekly podcast interesting enough that I made the effort to download it regularly. After getting an iPod it became a great deal easier to find interesting and useful content thanks to the iTunes store and for all its flaws it offers a nice hands off way of maintaining my subscriptions. While Juice can offer the subscription management for other players, it lacks a resource to plug into as a way of finding interesting content. The whole thing is disappointingly hardware centric.

Impact:

It makes better use of my commute time, and offers an additional way to take in useful information that can be easier to multi task than keeping on top of my RSS reader. However it is still very much about finding the right content and for me that is mostly covered off by the Guardian Tech Weekly, TED talks and Channel Flip Games (sadly this website fails to acknowledge their female audience).

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Twitter

This one is another late one for me, although I registered over a year ago I didn't have enough friends using the service and I didn't know how to find the interesting conversations. Two things changed over the course of the year; my brother became very active and offered me friendly face of whom I could ask the stupid questions (Twitter is not newbie friendly). Secondly I attended the #foct08 conference that actively encouraged participation through Twitter, by simultaneously projecting a live Twitter stream, thus offering me a reason to twitter and contribute whilst also finding those much needed contacts and conversations that make Twitter so engaging.

Impact:

It has already had a rather profound influence, since some of my usual bloggersphere haunts have become Twitter contacts, enabling me to have a much more direct conversation with those individuals than blog comments normally afford. Because of the very linear and immediate nature of Twitter I often use it instead of my RSS reader, I then get a direct link to the site, rather than seeing the content in sub-par experience of a reader. It has definitely altered my surfing habits and I am still finding new ways of hunting down other interesting people to follow, hashtags, MrTweet and Twitter Grader are proving quite useful.It has to be said this also offers the ambient intimacy (kudos Leisa) that appealed about Facebook, which is now neglected in lieu of Twitter.

Gaming

I got a Wii for my birthday this year and this was really the introduction of third generation console gaming into my home. Although there is a lot written about how the Wii has attracted casual gamers, the really interesting thing for me is the new way you can interact with the console and the new sorts of games that are being developed as a result. The most interesting games in my mind take advantage of these new kinds of interactions, without this the Wii is a poor relative to the other consoles, even with Nintendo's development powerhouse behind it. The other thing I like that Nintendo did was to explore mixing play with other tasks we would don't traditionally associate with gaming, such as learning or exercise, but it is interesting since as kids we learn through play.

Impact:

There have been a couple of games that although released across platforms have created a specific Wii version that utilises the controller, for me this is essential and can be the deciding factor in buying a game I would of skipped over on another console. The types of games I play has widened too.

Mobile Internet

At last thanks to the iPod and my HTC touch the mobile internet is mostly usable. It's not ready to replace my laptop yet, but on those occasions when I want internet access and I don't have access to my PC it fills the gap and works well for most sites. It has been increasingly useful when at work with restricted internet access, I can use my phone to check my email and sites like Facebook.

Impact:

Closer to ubiquitous computing. I can feed my internet addiction almost anywhere 🙂

My Top 5 Feminist Games

Feminist is such a loaded word I almost didn't use it in my title. But really it is about equality nothing more and nothing less, so I think it is appropriate for what I want to write about. I want to take a look at some of my favourite games, that also managed to handle gameplay related gender in a new way or that made me think, hopefully both.

Portal

This game is amazing, it also happens to have an all female cast, but this is no Dead or Alive Xtreme Beach Volleyball or the Newton defying girls therein, our heroine wears an asexual orange jumpsuit. It is a FPS games, so you aren't aware of your gender in the game at first, but most FPS games have male protagonists if not an all male cast and involve lots of shooting and killing. In portal you don't shoot bullets, but large portal holes which seems almost so obviously pseudo-sexual as to be crass, and perhaps would be if they weren't such a beautiful and fundamental part of what makes this game outstanding; it shifts the aim of the game from killing your opponents to outwitting the AI that has you trapped. Ultimately any game that offers cake as a reward knows exactly which of my buttons to press.

Primal

Primal turns the traditional Mario plot on it's head. At the beginning of the game Lewis is abducted, and it is up to his girlfriend and our heroine Jen to find him and rescue him. Not afraid to kick ass Jen literally morphs into a formidable warrior across the course of the story and thanks to some great voice acting from Hudson Leick and Andreas Katsulas and a descent script we get a much more well rounded character than someone like Samus from the Meteoroid Prime series. The game is based over a series of elemental worlds that thematically support the Gaia hypothesis, named after a Greek mother goddess. Also there is a yin yang relationship between order and chaos throughout the game.

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Tomb Raider

Much has been written about Lara Croft, but the original game was great fun and ground breaking. Released in 1996, a year after TV's female action hero Xena: Warrior Princess hit the screen, gaming saw it's first female lead, one that would give Indiana Jones a run for his money. Unfortunately the Tomb Raider series has failed to develop significantly enough to retain it's leading status in gaming culture, we have seen Lara's exaggerated figure fall foul of ridiculous physical design changes that pander to the fan-boy pin-up fantasy, rather than any real character development. Even the latest instalment which takes some interesting lessons from Assassin's Creed in terms of character movement falls short of the innovative seen in Mirror's Edge.

Screen shot of Jade from Beyond Good and Evil
Jade in Beyond Good and Evil

Beyond Good & Evil

In Beyond Good and Evil, Jade is our main character, but we also see female characters in positions of power throughout the game. In the game, although you can use martial art skills and a Dai-jo stick your main tool is a camera to collect information, document creatures, solve puzzles and ultimately to look for the truth. The story is also interesting because it deals with a corrupt government and notions of the freedom of the press. The characters are well developed and the subtlety of Jade's character is offset by Double-H who is an archetypal masculine hero with a code of honour and a preference for brute force solutions, but he's not dislikeable.

Dreamfall: The Longest Journey

Dreamfall is a sequel, but since I haven't played the original I shall not comment on it. I really enjoyed this game, mostly because of the depth of the plot and the characters in the story. It has obvious comparisons to Beyond Good and Evil; our main heroine is also 20 years old, street smart and trying to crack open a massive conspiracy. April Ryan, the character from the original game, also appears in Dreamfall, but Zoe Castillo is our primary character, who is searching for her missing boyfriend in a similar fashion to Primal and who also travels across multiple worlds to reach her goal. The story also examines themes of religious fanaticism through the third character that you play in the game; Kian Alvane who's faith in his Azadi rulers offers him a means to justify his acts of violence.

So there it is my top five, there are however a few games that deserve an honourable mention; Urban Chaos, released in 1999 was a game with a black woman, Darci Stern, as the main character. However gameplay was lacking and I never finished it, so I can't include it on my list. It was also filled with hookers as Darci was a cop who's task it was to clean up the streets. But nearly ten years later and there is still a very real lack of black female characters in games, all the women in my list are light skinned and dark haired, to the point where it has almost become its own stereotype. Only in Beyond Good and Evil is her ethnicity vague, and while I have seen Jade being described as a black female character, to my mind it is ambiguous rather than explicit. Sexuality is also marginalised, with very few examples of lead characters being explicitly gay. Fear Effect is one game where there is a lesbian relationship alluded to, but since I've not played it I can't comment on its portrayal. Most games are passive about same sex relationships, such as RPG games that allow the gamer to decide, for example The Sims or Fable 2. Jade Empire allowed you to play from a selection of set male and female characters, which can romance different male and female characters depending on your gender, however even with the set characters it is at the gamer's discretion.

Another lacking representation of women in games is in age. Old women just don't exist in games as far as I can tell, and certainly not as primary characters. If there is an old woman she will often take a narrative role, such as in Fable 2, but even then age isn't explicit. Given that older women gamers is a huge growing market, I wonder if this will change as casual gaming becomes even bigger. But I imagine as with other media, where women over fifty seem to disappear as though consumed in a modern day Logan's Run, it will take some time for this to be addressed. Second Life may have unleashed a plethora of virtual furries but few want to play as old people, after all no-one likes to think about getting old.

With the increasing flexibility of RPG characters or gaming avatars and the increase in MMOGs, perhaps we will see this change on-line first. We can use these tools to create change and to challenge our own expectations of our gaming experiences.

Good Old Games coming to a PC near you

If you missed some of the classic PC games of yesteryear, or if you have even tried to reinstall them on your new Vista box only to be thwarted by incompatability, well then I have the site for you… Good Old Games

Good Old Games website

Good Old Games has a growing catalogue of classic PC games guarenteed to work on XP and Vista.

There are some great classics on there including the Fallout series and the early Unreal titles, and they are all DRM free and come with support. At less than $10 or about

Evolution of a Girl Gamer

I have been gaming for all of my life; Space Invaders was released in the same year I was born. I’ve been thinking back about not only how the technology has changed but how my gaming habits have also changed. What started with playing arcade tables in pubs and evolved through to Rock Band on an Xbox360.

My early and only console gaming for a long time was Wizard of Wor and Space Invaders on an old Atari 2600. When we got an Amstrad CPC with only one game; a dodgy flight simulator that took three times longer to load on cassette than I could ever make the game last, I taught myself BASIC instead and sealed my geek fate.

This was the start of my PC gaming habits; we got a 386 and discovered Duke Nukem and Prince of Persia back when they were still 2D platform games, shortly followed by Wolfenstein3D and then Duke Nukem 3D.

From then on I was predominantly a PC gamer, only managing to grab the odd game on console when babysitting or at a friend’s house. Mostly I enjoyed the odd point and click adventure game, especially if it was an Eric Idol voiced Rincewind set in the Discworld.

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My uni years were filled with Unreal Tournament and Tekken 3. This was the first time I remember my gender being significant to my gaming, as I would enjoy going to LAN parties and surprising the lads. It wasn’t until much later that the notion of being a “girl gamer” as opposed to being a “gamer” really came into being. Even when I watched Bits religiously each week and loved it, it was more from the realisation that there were other women out there with the same passion for gaming as me, than some notion of being different from other gamers.

However recently with Nintendo’s success at marketing to the mainstream and female audience with casual gaming, a new notion of “girl gamer”or has evolved, with a stigma attached to it, as though not a ‘proper’ gamer.

As games have evolved, so have the games I play. I play less FPS games now; especially as the many titles focus on being war sims. Over time I’ve enjoyed titles like Fallout, Black and White (despite bugs) and Evolva. Then as I got into console gaming I’ve enjoyed a diversity of games including Katamari Damacy, Psychonauts, Burnout and Guitar Hero. Many of these titles might be considered “girl gamer” titles, so despite my passion for gaming, because I don’t play CoD4 I’m not considered a “hardcore gamer” irrespective of the time and diversity of the games I play. There is an atmosphere that some how girls can’t be ‘proper’ gamers, as they don’t like the ‘right’ games.

For me this shows that the games industry still has some way to go to understand what makes a successful game for their female audience, perhaps due to the lack of women in games development. It seems to come almost as surprise to some developers that their games are successful with women aswell as men, where as there are still games released like My Horse & Me that are so gender stereotypical as to be laughable, but at least now there is a diversity of games available.

Game City 3

Although it was over a fortnight ago I still want to write about the Game City 3 event that occurred in Nottingham. It was a three day event, but I was only able to attend on the last day. It is great to events like this organised outside of London.

While I enjoyed the event and I’m glad I attended, overall I’m not sure the event was as well organised as last years. The website made it hard to find some of the important information regarding the event and emails of inquiry were not replied to. The pricing structure changed from last year, previously tickets were bought for individual events, so you picked and chose which of the events that cost you were interested in and filled the gaps with the free stuff, of which there was plenty. This year is was like a more conventional conference in that you bought a ticket for the whole day, and this gave you access to all the events. The advantage of this is that there was a more consistent audience for all the events, but it wasn’t clear which events needed to be paid for and when events were cancelled there was no compensation or even notification. Thankfully the students that were there helping to run the event were helpful and friendly to make up for the lack of organisation.

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However there were some real highlights for me, including Little Big Planet developers showing the proof of concepts they used to sell the idea of Big Little Planet to Sony.

Little Big Planet proof of concept

It was nice to see the simplicity of the original concept and how it had developed.

I also really enjoyed the Guardian Games Blog Curry Night Games Quiz. Keith did a stand up job, and fun was had by all. There was a great atmosphere and plenty of friendly faces so I really enjoyed myself, even if I was useless.

Our entry into the playdo round of the quiz

Indiecade was brilliant, and despite the awkward location I think this was better than last year. It was great to see the next creation from the developer of Samorost. I really enjoyed that game as it reminds a bit a Terry Gilliam sketch. There was also an interesting Counter Strike mod based on the two factions in Northern Ireland and also documenting the graffiti and murals.

The lunchtime talk from Tom Armitage struck a nerve with me when he talked about what gaming had taught this generation, and more interestingly how the lessons learnt from gaming can be applied to other areas, such as interface design.

Tom Armitage

The other nice side effect of having a large group of gamers together was getting my ass kicked at a networked game of Mario Kart DS and making some new friends on the way. Thanks to the organisers and to all the friendly people I met.

See more of my photos on Flickr