Looking into the SociaVirtualistic Future

Let’s get this out of the way. One of the primary reasons I’m writing this is in response to a request by John Carmack for coherent commentary about the recent acquisition of Oculus VR by Facebook. My hope is that he does, in fact, read this and maybe drop a comment in response. <fanboy>Hi John!</fanboy> I’ve been a huge Carmack fan since the early ID days, so please excuse the fanboyism.

And I *just* saw the news that Michael Abrash has joined Oculus as well, which is also incredibly exciting. Abrash is an Assembly GOD. <Insert more fanboyism here />

Ok, on to the topic a hand. The Oculus Rift is a VR headset that got its public start with a Kickstarter campaign in September of 2012. It blew away it’s meager goal of $250,000 and raked in almost $2.5 Million. For a mere $275 and some patience, contributors would receive an unassembled prototype of the Oculus Rift. Toss in another $25 and you received an assembled version.

But what is the Oculus Rift? According to the Kickstarter campaign :

Oculus Rift is a new virtual reality (VR) headset designed specifically for video games that will change the way you think about gaming forever. With an incredibly wide field of view, high resolution display, and ultra-low latency head tracking, the Rift provides a truly immersive experience that allows you to step inside your favorite game and explore new worlds like never before.

In short, the Rift is the culmination of every VR lover’s dreams. Put a pair of these puppies on and magic appears before your eyes.

For myself, Rift was interesting, but probably not something I could ever use. Unfortunately, I suffer from Amblyopia, or Lazy Eye as it’s commonly called. I’m told I don’t see 3D. Going to 3D movies pretty much confirms this for me since nothing ever jumps out of the screen. So as cool as VR sounds to me, I would miss out on the 3D aspect. Though it might be possible to “tweak” the headset and adjust the angles a bit to force my eyes to see 3D. I’m not sure if that’s good for my eyes, though.

At any rate, the Rift sounds like an amazing piece of technology. In the past year I’ve watched a number of videos demonstrating the capabilities of the Rift. From the Hak5 crew to Ben Heck, the reviews have all been positive.

And then I learned that John Carmack joined Oculus. I think that was about the time I realized that Oculus was the real deal. John is a visionary in so many different ways. One can argue that modern 3D gaming is largely in part to the work he did in the field. In more recent years, his visions have aimed a bit higher with his rocket company, Armadillo Aerospace. Armadillo started winding down last year, right about the time that John joined Oculus, leaving him plenty of time to deep dive into a new venture.

For anyone paying attention, Oculus was recently acquired by Facebook for a mere $2 Billion. Since the announcement, I’ve seen a lot of hatred being tossed around on Twitter. Some of this hatred seems to be Kickstarter backers who are under some sort of delusion that makes them believe they have a say in anything they back. I see this a lot, especially when a project is taking longer than they believe it should.

I can easily write several blog posts on my personal views about this, but to sum it up quickly, if you back a project, you’re contributing to make something a reality. Sometimes that works, sometimes it doesn’t. But Kickstarter clearly states that you’re merely contributing financial backing, not gaining a stake in a potential product and/or company. Nor are you guaranteed to receive the perks you’ve contributed towards. So suck it up and get over it. You never had control to begin with.

I think Notch, of Minecraft fame, wrote a really good post about his feeling on the subject. I think he has his head right. He contributed, did his part, and though it’s not working out the way he wanted, he’s still willing to wish the venture luck. He may not want to play in that particular sandbox, but that’s his choice.

VR in a social setting is fairly interesting. In his first Oculus blog post, Michael Abrash mentioned reading Neal Stephenson’s incredible novel, Snow Crash. Snow Crash provided me with a view of what virtual reality might bring to daily life. Around the same time, the movie Lawnmower Man was released. Again, VR was brought into the forefront of my mind. But despite the promises of books and movies, VR remained elusive.

More recently, I read a novel by Ernest Cline, Ready Player One. Without giving too much away, the novel centers around a technology called the OASIS. Funnily enough, the OASIS is, effectively, a massive social network that users interact with via VR rigs. OASIS was the first thing I thought about when I heard about the Facebook / Oculus acquisition.

For myself, my concern is Facebook. Despite being a massively popular platform, I think users still distrust Facebook quite a bit. I lasted about 2 weeks on Facebook before having my account deleted. I understand their business model and I have no interest in taking part. Unfortunately, I’m starting to miss out on some aspects of Internet life since some sites are requiring Facebook accounts for access. Ah well, I guess they miss out on me as well.

I have a lot of distrust in Facebook at the moment. They wield an incredible amount of information about users and, to be honest, they’re nowhere near transparent enough for me to believe what they say. Google is slightly better, but there’s some distrust there as well. But more than just the distrust, I’m afraid that Facebook is going to take something amazing and destroy it in a backwards attempt to monetize it. I’m afraid that Facebook is the IOI of this story. (It’s a Ready Player One reference. Go read it, you can thank me later)

Ultimately, I have no stake in this particular game. At least, not yet, anyway. Maybe I’m wrong and Facebook makes all the right moves. Maybe they become a power for good and are able to bring VR to the masses. Maybe people like Carmack and Abrash can protect Oculus and fend off any fumbling attempts Facebook may make at clumsy monetization. I’m not sure how this will play out, only time will tell.

How will we know how things are going? Well, for one, watching his Facebook interacts with this new property will be pretty telling. I think if Facebook is able to sit in the shadows and watch rather than kicking in the front door and taking over, maybe Oculus will have a chance to thrive. Watching what products are ultimately released by Oculus will be another telling aspect. While I fully expect that Oculus will add some sort of Facebook integration into the SDK over time, I’m also hoping that they continue to provide an SDK for standalone applications.

I sincerely wish Carmack, Abrash, and the rest of the Oculus team the best. I think they’re in a position where they can make amazing things happen, and I’m eager to see what comes next.

Monitoring as a Lifestyle

A few years ago, I wrote a blog entry about losing weight using the Wii Fit. This worked really well for me and I was quite happy with the weight I lost. But I found, over time, that I put at least some of the weight back on. Most of this, I believe, was due to not having a full understanding of how much I was eating.

I’ve since switched from using the Wii Fit to using the XBox Kinect for fitness. I also go to fitness classes outside of home, but that’s a more recent change. But this blog entry isn’t really about fitness alone. It’s about monitoring your lifestyle, keeping track of the data you generate on a daily basis. Right now, I track a lot of personal data about my weight, what I eat, how often I work out, how I sleep, etc.

Allow me to lay out some of the tools I use on a daily basis. First off, my phone. I happen to be an iPhone user at the moment, though any modern smartphone has somewhat similar capabilities. Using my phone, I can view and edit my data whenever I need to, wherever I am. There are literally thousands of applications that can be used to track data about yourself. I’m hoping to be able to aggregate all or most of this data in a single location at some point, but for now, it’s spread across a few different services.

I’m typically fairly private about my data and I tend to avoid most cloud services. However, I have found that it’s virtually impossible to do the type of tracking I want without having to building every single tool myself. So, instead, I use a few online services and provide them with virtually no personal information about myself beyond what is required to make the service work.

So what am I using, anyway? Let’s start with how I track my diet. I’m using a service called My Fitness Pal to track what my daily caloric intake is. This has significantly helped me redefine my dietary habits and helped me to realize how much I should be eating. Previously, I would try to reduce my intake by spreading out meals over the course of the day. While this is a great habit, in the end I believe I was eating more than I should have been, despite my intent. Using the MyFitnessPal application, I get a clear view of where I stand at any point during the day. I’ve been able to significantly reduce my intake without having to shun the foods I love.

On the fitness side of things, I work out every morning before work using XBox Kinect and Your Shape Fitness. I switched over to this when the original Your Shape game came out and I’ve been quite happy. The Wii Fit is a great tool to start with, and it has the benefit of checking your weight every time you play, something I do miss with Your Shape, but the exercises became far too easy to complete. Your Shape pushes a bit harder, bringing a higher level of exercise to my daily routine. And now with the new version, they’ve raised the bar a bit, allowing me to push even harder. There are a few areas I’d like to see improvements in, but overall, I don’t have many complaints.

Using the Your Shape app on my phone, I get a readout of my exercise for the day, as well as an estimate of the calories I burned. I take this information and enter it into the My Fitness Pal application. Doing this allows me to increase my allotment of calories for the day based on how active I have been. In a way, I guess it works like a reward system, granting me the ability to enjoy a little more each day I spend time to work out.

I also wear a Jawbone Up. The Up is a pretty cool little device that tracks your movement during the day and your sleep patterns at night. It can also be used to track your food, though the interface for this is a bit lacking, which is why I use MyFitnessPal. The Up gives me a great view of how active I am during the day, as well as a view of how well I’m sleeping at night. Jawbone has had a bit of a hard time with this particular product, but my personal experience has been pretty positive thus far.

I have a few applications on my phone for tracking runs, though I use them for walking instead.. I’m not much of a runner. These applications are a dime a dozen, and I don’t really have a preference at this point. As long as the application has feedback on distance and route, it’s typically good enough. The application for the Up has this capability as well, though I haven’t had a chance to try it out yet.

And finally, I use an application to track my weight on a daily basis. One of the first things I do in the morning is weigh myself. I’m currently using an application called TargetWeight by Tactio. Basically, this application tracks your weight over time, offering up a few features to help along the way. If you enter a target weight, the application will show you the weight left to lose as part of the icon on your phone. Additionally, it will attempt to predict when you’ll hit your target rate based on the historical date it has collected. There’s a nice graphical view of your weight over time as well. Entering your weight is a quick process each morning and is one of the biggest motivators for me. There’s also an option to use a WiFi enabled Withings scale to wirelessly enter your data.

All together, these various applications and tools allow me to gain better insight into my daily health. This is obviously not for everyone, but for myself it has worked wonders. I’ve lost about 30 pounds or so in the past 2 months, and I’m getting quite close to my current target weight. To each his own, but this is working wonders for me.


Video games are incredibly fun to play. There are those out there, however, that argue that game players are being de-sensitized to violence by playing these games. For a very long time, I’ve argued against this, citing games as a cathartic activity rather than a damaging one. My view has changed, however, due to this image that I stumbled across recently.

(via Wonderland Blog via Maneggs)

Playbox Three-Sixt-Wii!

I was fortunate enough to obtain both a PlayStation 3 and an Xbox 360 recently. I’ve owned a Wii since it was launched back in 2006. The Wii was always relegated as a non-contender in the “next-gen” console wars. The Wuu has definitely held its own, however, effectively carving its own niche. Instead of concentrating on graphics and processor technology, they went in a completely different direction, creating a new way to play games with their innovative controller.

I have been a Playstation guy for a while. While I never owned the original Playstation, I did get the Playstation 2 on the day it was released. The PS2 was the clear winner in the previous generation of consoles, handily beating the Nintendo 64 and Dreamcast. Microsoft was late to the game with the original Xbox, which didn’t seem to do very well. The Playstation 3 has been a powerhouse since it was released. It clearly has better graphics then any other system out there, and the processing power of the system is incredible. Games on this thing look incredible, but despite this, I don’t think Sony is doing very well.

The Xbox 360 is a pretty decent machine, despite the red-ring issue they initially had. It doesn’t have the power or graphical prowess of the PS3, but it does have a pretty strong backing. I’m not a hardcore Microsoft hater, but I’m not exactly a fan either. I’ve essentially moved on from Windows and I use either Linux or OS X now. Despite this, I’ve been drawn to the Xbox 360 for some time now. I had avoided purchasing one, but then, I had avoided purchasing a PS3 as well. Since getting both a PS3 and an Xbox 360, however, I’ve noticed that I’m drawn more towards the 360 and I’ve grown curious as to the reasoning behind this. I think I’ve finally identified it.

If you want your platform to do well, you need to build a community around it. Microsoft’s Xbox team has done this, in spades. Marketing is one thing, and there is a massive marketing force behind the 360, but community can really make or break things. The PS3 has a little bit of a community, mostly centering around the PS blog. Nintendo’s community is virtually nonexistent. But the 360 community is just huge and engaging. Major Nelson and his team do an incredible job promoting the 360 while keeping their content entertaining and diverse. The 360 itself encompasses a ton of community building with a stream of new content about new games, videos, and music.

I think Microsoft’s Xbox team has clearly won this round of the console wars. The advent of the Kinect and the Move, round two is clearly on its way. The Kinect seems to be out to an early lead, however, with the Move being mostly ignored as a copy of the Wii motion controllers. Nintendo doesn’t seem to have a play in this latest round, though one could argue they were first to market when they initially launched.

I enjoy playing all three consoles, but the Xbox clearly seems to be winning in my home. Microsoft is doing an incredible job thus far with the Xbox and I’m hoping they continue they way they’re going.


Aperture Science Updates

E3 is in full swing and among the myriad of incredible announcements and demos, the fine folks over at Aperture Science demonstrated some of their new technology. Below are some absolutely incredible videos showing off all that is Portal 2. I am so incredibly excited about this game and cannot wait to get my hands on it.

Just look at the beauty of the environment they’ve designed for Portal 2… The bright white of the original Portal lab is marred by rust and wear as well as encroachment from the outside.

The new game mechanics are simply brilliant. I can’t wait to see how creative you can get with the various mechanics. I’m sure the achievements available will reflect this as well.

According to what I’ve read, Valve brought on the team from Digipen that came up with Tag and added that technology to Portal. The result is the gels you see being used to provide additional bounce or speed boosts.

2011 cannot get here fast enough.. Let’s just hope I have enough time to play before the world ends in 2012!

Games as saviors?

I watched a video yesterday about using video games as a means to help solve world problems. It sounds outrageous at first, until you really think about the problem. But first, how about watching the video :

Ok, now that you have some background, let’s think about this for a bit. Technology is amazing, and has brought us many advancements. Gaming is one of those advancements. We have the capability of creating entire universes, purely for our own amusement. People spend hours each day exploring these worlds. Players are typically working toward completing goals set forth by the game designers. When a player completes a goal, they are rewarded. Sometimes rewards are new items, monetary in nature, or perhaps clues to other goals. Each goal is within the reach of the player, though some goals may require more work to attain.

Miss McGonigal argues that the devotion that players show to games can be harnessed and used to help solve real-world problems. Players feel empowered by games, finding within them a way to control what happens to them. Games teach players that they can accomplish the goals set before them, bringing with it an excitement to continue.

I had the opportunity to participate in a discussion about this topic with a group of college students. Opinions ranged from a general distaste of gaming, seeing it as a waste of time, to an embrace of the ideas presented in the video. For myself, I believe that many of the ideas Miss McGonigal presents have a lot of merit. Some of the students argued that such realistic games would be complicated and uninteresting. However, I would argue that such realistic games have already proven to be big hits.

Take, for example, The Sims. The Sims was a huge hit, with players spending hours in the game adjusting various aspects of their character’s lives. I found the entire phenomenon to be absolutely fascinating. I honestly don’t know what the draw of the game was. Regardless, it did extremely well, proving that such a game could succeed.

Imagine taking a real-world problem and creating a game to represent that problem. At the very least, such a game can foster conversation about the problem. It can also lead to unique ideas about how to solve the problem, even though those playing the game may not be well-versed on the topic.

It’s definitely an avenue worth tackling, especially as future generations spend more time online. If we can find a way to harness the energy and excitement that gaming generates, we may be able to find solutions to many of the worlds most perplexing problems.


Gaming Legend

I ran across an article on Gamasutra a few months ago, and I’ve had it in my list of things to write about since then. I decided to finally get to writing about it today.

Scott Miller is the founder of Apogee Software. Apogee, and it’s sister-company, 3D Realms, are makers of some of the greatest games I’ve played. I grew up with these guys!

If we travel back a few years, back to the BBS days, there was a rather well-known BBS called Software Creations. I fondly remember dialing in weekly to check on the latest Apogee releases. Of course, I also remember, less fondly, getting in a helluva lot of trouble for running up the phone bill too. But, in the end, I think it was worth it. Apogee made some of the best games of that time and being the first on the virtual block with their latest creation was stuff of legend.

But Apogee was more than just a game company. They helped spawn a PC gaming revolution. Before Apogee, game makers either sold their games commercially, or released them as shareware, hoping users who downloaded their games would send them a few bucks. Commercial games relied solely on marketing and flashy ads while shareware authors relied solely on faith.

Apogee can be credited with bringing shareware to the masses and kickstarting the PC gaming revolution. They broke their games into multiple parts and released the first part for free, radically changing the well-established shareware model. This served as a fully-functional demo, enough to get you hooked, and then sold the rest of the game as a commercial product. And so the episodic model was born. They were also responsible for helping kickstart one of the most well-known game development companies, id Software.

Apogee started in 1986 with ASCII-based games such as Beyond the Titanic and the Kroz series. From there they moved into 2D CGA/EGA games such as Crystal Caves, Bio Menace, and, Duke Nukem, which would go on to become one of their most popular properties. Shortly after Apogee started doing business as 3D Realms in 1996, they released Duke Nukem 3D, arguably their greatest hit.

In the 20+ year history of Apogee and 3D Realms, they have released in excess of 70+ games. Unfortunately, most of these releases were from before Apogee entered the 3D age and formed 3D Realms, but then, most publishers have slowed output considerably since then due to the big budget games they create. More recently, 3D Realms has been working with external development teams.

3D Realm announced in May that it will be closing its doors, though they have since made announcements regarding an overhaul of their online store, as well as the release of a Prey-based iPhone game. Both of these announcements came roughly 1 month after the announcement of their imminent closing. According to Scott Miller, however, only the internal development team was released and 3D Realms will continue to do business. Miller claims there are still several titles in development by external teams.

Even today, Apogee continues to move in new directions. Scott Miller helped form a new game company, the Radar Group, which aims to take new ideas and form them into marketable properties for games, television, and movies. The Radar Group aims to take gaming into a whole new direction.

The Apogee name has been licensed to a new group of developers who aim to revive the label. According to Scott Miller, the new Apogee group is working on a Duke Nukem Trilogy and an up-to-date version of Rise of the Triad. RotT was originally intended as a Wolfenstein 3D sequel until ID Software pulled the plug.

While most of the gaming world has moved on to bigger titles, and while Apogee’s role seems to have diminished somewhat, it’s good to remember where it all started. Apogee helped make PC gaming what it is today. And who knows, perhaps they have something else up their sleeve.


Moral Outrage

I just caught this story over on slashdot. The details are quite a bit fuzzy here, but the general premise is that the new Modern Warfare 2 game has scenes of terrorism. This is a bit more than just a cut scene, though, as it appears the player is actively participating in the action. Keep in mind, though, that this game is, as yet, unreleased. There is no real context here, so we don’t know why the player is participating in these acts. [Update] As I’m writing this, there have been some updates. Apparently Activision UK has authenticated the footage, claiming it’s an optional scenario.

Video footage is being taken down very rapidly by Activision, the publisher, so good luck finding live footage. At the time of writing, this site does have some rather fuzzy video.

The outrage is obviously centered around the terrorism portrayed in the video. From what I’ve seen, it looks like the player is participating in a terroristic act, that of killing civilians in an airport. The video shows mass carnage with no remorse, shooting people in the back, shooting civilians as they flee or attempt to help others, and tossing grenades into masses of people. Here is a still shot from the video:

Let’s keep in mind, however, that we’re talking about a mature rated game. This is NOT a game for children. But people are “outraged” anyway. And I have to ask, why? Let’s think about this for a bit. First, there have been claims throughout the years that games de-sensitize you from violence. That games are “murder simulators,” and other such insanity. Yet, after this footage was leaked, we hear outrage from gamers about the improper nature of it and how it makes some people feel uncomfortable. They wonder if Infinity Ward, the creators, are going to far.

I don’t see a problem here, though. This is a game designed to be as realistic as possible. And guess what, people die in real life. There are terrorist acts that actually involve real terrorists. So viewing the action through the guise of a terrorist is a perfectly valid way to tell a story. They do it in books, and they do it in movies. This just ups the interactivity a bit more. And, if it makes the player feel uncomfortable in the process, then it’s doing a damn good job, isn’t it. How about we make the player think a bit. Let’s show them how things really are. Not everything is a fantasy game, we can use games as a teaching tool too. Learning how the terrorists see things, what choices they make and how quickly they sometimes make them is important to understanding them.

I applaud Infinity Ward for their choices. From what I’ve read, it sounds like they’re doing it in a very responsible nature. I may pick this game up just to “speak with my wallet” as it were. Just to bring more innovation and daring to the industry. We need something new, something exciting, and yes, something that upsets our oh-so-delicate sensibilities. Bravo.