Favorite free iPhone app of the moment: Frotz

While the iPhone can play some pretty sophisticated games, and makes better use of it’s touch screen than the Nintendo DS, one of the best free apps is a very old school genre: interactive fiction.

I’m a huge role-playing nerd and used to love the old “Choose Your Own Adventure” books, but somehow never played interactive fiction, the original “sandbox” games that let you decide how you proceeded through a text-based adventure. I knew of its legacy on RPGs, but wasn’t aware that new Interactive Fiction was still being created.

Well, with Frotz, available for free in Apple’s iPhone apps store, a whole world of Interactive Fiction is opened up to a new generation. It comes with over 20 titles, covering a wide variety of story genres and levels of interaction. You give simple commands, like “talk to x about y,” examine,” “open door” and so on, to navigate your way through the stories, with each one having its own game-specific details.

For example, “An Act of Murder” places you as a detective, with a mansion to explore and witnesses to question. You have a time limit based on commands given, and depending on what evidence from asking the right questions of the right people, you might be able to determine who the culprit is and put them away.

Frotz also contains a link to the IFDB, Interactive Fiction Database, to find classics such as “Zork” as well as brand new titles, though not all are free. According to Frotz’s info, it can play most stories written in the Z-Machine format.

Frotz is great to play while waiting in lines or in a reception area, if you don’t mind looking like an obsessive texter, and has almost endless play value. Of all the free apps the iPhone has, Frotz is the game that has by far been getting the most use.

-Aaron Burkhart

October 3, 2008 at 9:56 pm Leave a comment

Star Wars: The Force Unleashed sports new tech

For the past few years, video games have been all about the graphics. Now, with high-definition game consoles and ever-increasingly powerful PC video cards, some have started turning their attention to a more subtle aspect of gameplay – physics.

With nVidia’s recent acquisition of AGEIA and ATI’s partnership with Havok, PC games are going to be seeing more emphasis on physics processing in the months to come. With a dedicated physics processor, things like particle effects (good for explosions), collision detection (handy if you don’t want to walk through walls and floors) and the way things physically react when interacted with are no longer being handled by the CPU or GPU. Not only does this give you a performance boost, but you get a much more realistic representation of the physical world around us.

Digital Molecular Matter from Pixelux Entertainment, or DMM, is the physics engine used in the upcoming Star Wars: The Force Unleashed video game. Unlike previous physics models, DMM simulates flexible, deforming, and rigid objects all at once. The programmer can set parameters for different materials, such as glass, wood, or steel. One impressive demo I saw involved a wooden beam inside a glass box. As the beam was twisted, you could see here it was being stressed. When it finally broke, it splintered as a real piece of wood should. The splinters ejected outward and shattered the glass, not just anywhere, but where the glass was impacted.

I had the chance to play the PlayStation 3 demo version of Star Wars: The Force Unleashed, and even in the demo’s limited scope there is a chance to see some DMM in action. There is a training room where your character uses the Force to throw some heavy objects though a few glass panels. The glass is tempered, so the entire pane shatters and falls to the floor when you hit it. However, depending on where and how hard you hit it, it will break in countless ways. There are steel beams to bend, doors to break through, wires and conduits hanging from the ceiling and plenty of objects (including droids and stormtroopers) to toss about.

The other new engine in SW:TFU is called Euphoria, by Naturalmotion. Euphoria’s tagline is “unique game moments,” and that is exactly what Naturalmotion intends to create here. Character animation has traditionally been done by a series of preset poses, or information gathered from a motion-capture session. With Euphoria’s Dynamic Motion Synthesis, or DMS, animations are generated on the fly. Every character has not only a skeletal structure, but muscles and a motor system that gives him a range of possible movements rather than a few predetermined poses. This means that although a squad of stormtroopers may all come at you with blasters blazing, some may react differently when knocked down. Some may even be afraid to get back up. Yes, Euphoria’s AI can give the NPCs a sense of self-preservation. I have noticed that some stormtroopers even seem to be afraid of heights!

Since Star Wars: The Force Unleashed will be the first game to use both of these exciting physics engines, I’ll be eagerly anticipating the release of the full game on September 16th.

 -Jubal Burkhart

August 26, 2008 at 7:33 am Leave a comment

PlayStation 3 version 2.42 easier for networking

By Jubal Burkhart

Home networking between various platforms lets a central storage hub provide content through all your devices, even stream your own media to portable devices like the PSP. It sure sounds good. But if you’re like me, keeping your own network running glitch-free is a frustrating and time-consuming task.

My ultimate task was to share files between my PCs and PlayStations. My home network consists of four PCs — with four different versions of Windows — a Wii, a PSP, and now a PS3. I got it to work once, maybe twice, in the first couple of months I had the PS3. After hours of Googling, I found I was not alone in my despair. Comments such as, “Sony shouldn’t say something works if it just plain doesn’t,” and “it seems to work at random” were all over the myriad forums I waded through.

Then, one day, something changed.

Sony released version 2.42 of the PS3 software, and now it works all the time. Of course, there are certain settings on the PCs, the PS3, and the PSP that need to be adjusted to get the best results. I’m not sure what all of them do, or which are integral to the network, but I’ll share my settings, since they seem to do the trick. This guide assumes that all your devices are already on the same network, all attached to the same router.

First, get the latest update for your PS3 and PCs. By now everybody should have Windows Media Player 11 no matter what OS you are running. I’m not sure if you have to have WMP11, or if WMP10 will work, but it’s time to upgrade to 11 anyway. In WMP, add to your library all the files you want to share. This includes music as well as pictures and videos. The PS3 will recognize most file formats on a PC, but a few are not compatible. MP3s will work, but to play WMA or ATRAC files you will need to enable WMA and ATRAC playback in the System Settings section of the PS3’s Xross Media Bar (XMB). Next, go to WMP’s Library tab and select “Media Sharing.” Fill the “Share my media to:” checkbox and select the PS3. It will probably show up as “Unknown Device,” and may even indicate the PS3’s MAC address. Press the “Allow” button. Press the “Settings” button in the same dialogue box and make sure all media types and all ratings are shared — with just the default settings it might not share anything. In my experience, Windows Firewall will allow these connections, but you may have to configure others.

Now on to the PS3. Under “Network Settings,” first enable Media Server Connection. Then go to Internet Connection Settings. Set MTU to Automatic, and NAT type to Type 2. Now you should see a Windows Media Player icon and the name of your computer near the top of the Photo, Music, and Video columns of the XMB. If you have a lot of stuff in the WMP library, it can take a while for it to show up.

Now on to the PSP. No special settings needed here. As long as you are set up for Remote Play, you can now stream media from your PC to your PSP over the Internet no matter where you are in the world! Just make sure the PSP is registered with the PS3 first. PS3’s Remote Start must be set to On, as well as Automatic Login. And of course, the PC will need to be on and logged into the network for the PS3 to see it. Also make sure your PSP firmware is the latest. If it is outdated, it may not be able to connect to the PS3 over Remote Play.

I hope this works for you; it should cover most of the common problems you will see while setting this up.

August 21, 2008 at 5:07 pm 1 comment

OLED monitors needed to break-in technology

It’s been over eight months since Sony showed off its amazing OLED TVs at CES 2008, including the prototype 27-inch model, yet nothing has been heard about this “breakthrough” technology since that time.

I, for one, was blown away by what I saw (let Wil Wheaton explain it), but have been disappointed by the lack of any further movement. It seems like Sony’s strategy for the OLED screens may be focused in the wrong direction.

The price and size of the first generation OLED TVs is certainly a drawback — $2,500 for an 11-inch screen. It’s also literally impossible to see the vividness of the picture on any normal TV or monitor, so Sony’s decision to sell them only online or in a Sony store means most people would have to actively search one out, or buy sight unseen. Sony should at least put a display model in the home theater departments of electronics chains, just to generate awareness, and so people can see what it looks like.

Sony has also been emphasizing the thinness of the TV screen, even though the large base it sits on renders that feature almost pointless. The real draw (which, again, can only be seen in person) is the million to one contrast and blazing fast refresh speed.

What Sony should be doing is making and marketing OLED screens as monitors, not TVs. Here’s just a few reasons:

Without the TV base, the thin OLED screen could be sit much flatter on top of a much smaller base for a PC connection.

Monitors are a lot smaller than TVs, so an 11-inch screen would be a decent size, and they wouldn’t have to struggle to keep up with TV sizes, just go up a little to 15- and 17-inch models.

Hardcore gamers and PC users are already used to spending thousands of dollars for the latest graphic cards, memory, motherboards, etc. to keep their machines on the cutting edge.  The frame-rate watching, number-spewing crowd would be the perfect market for OLED monitors.

Of course, we are in a bit of a recession right now, so price might still be an issue no matter what. But we won’t see vibrant OLED screens really enter the market until the early adopters start things off, and that’s more the realm of computer enthusiasts than tiny-TV watchers. Granted, I’m sure you can hook an OLED TV up to a computer if you wanted to, but it’s still got the extra TV bulk. The bottom line is that Sony is selling this new technology on the wrong features and to the wrong crowd; many people will never buy one or even see one in person if the marketing isn’t fixed, which means the price will never go down. And I really want to have one.

-Aaron Burkhart

August 19, 2008 at 9:38 am 1 comment

Wireless power continues to inch toward consumers

By Aaron Burkhart

I’ve been trying to keep an eye on upcoming wireless power options (which is like watching grass grow), and it looks like the big wireless power developers are still crawling toward consumer solutions.

In an article I wrote for the April 15 issue of The Northern Light, I examined the different methods of generating wireless power and a few of the companies to watch. Since then, there have been a few new announcements that give me hope the technology isn’t too far from store shelves.

Since then, Fulton Innovation (whose eCoupled technology is one of the most promising wireless power options) has acquired the assets of Splashpower, a competing wireless power developer that ran out of funds some time ago (read the short press release on the aquisition). To buy out a defunct competitor must mean Splashpower had some technology that eCoupled didn’t; that means a likely improvement in Fulton’s already impressively strong eCoupled technology, which uses an inductively coupled power circuit, as did Splashpower.

Also of note is Powercast’s statement that it has come to an agreement with Pure Energy Visions, maker of rechargeable batteries. Unlike the inductive coupling technology mentioned above, Powercast uses radio frequency harvesting to trickle power to its enabled devices. While RF harvesting will never power a running laptop like eCoupled technology can, it can charge small devices from a much greater distance. Rechargeable batteries with this technology could be put in any device and you would never have to replace the batteries or place them in a charger — it would all be done through the airwaves without you doing a thing. This is very promising, although rechargeable batteries in general still haven’t caught on as well as they should have.

Most recently, HoMedics, maker of massaging cushions and other home health products, partnered up with Powermat to create products with wireless power capabilities. The press release doesn’t give much detail, but it won’t be full wireless yet, since any wirelessly powered device would still need a wireless power giver — which, ideally, would be embedded in the floors, walls and furniture. That’s the biggest obstacle to this technology: it’s almost a catch-22 of putting out wireless devices while still needing to plug-in a powermat to give off the wireless power. That is, until enough homes have wireless power-givers already embedded, which nobody will make until they see a market filled with wirelessly powered devices.

Anyway, it’s a step in the right direction, and I’m excited to see where wireless power goes next; the true potential of the technology is barely even tapped.

July 31, 2008 at 9:21 am Leave a comment

First wave of Apple iPhone Apps reviews: best freebies

By Aaron Burkhart

Before the reviews, here’s what to expect from the update and the new App Store:
With people having problems updating their iPhones due to overloading of servers (Apple’s and/or AT&T’s), I waited a few days to install the update. Not including download time, the installation of the update took 20 minutes, going through various stages of “backup,” “restoring,” and “verifying.” At several points it looked like it might be stuck, but it would eventually keep going. It’s possible the servers were still being strained. After the update was up and running I headed to the new iTunes App Store to see what new functionality I could finally add to my 16GB iPhone.

The App Store had a total of 790 apps on Monday, July 14. Some random observations:

  • While there were plenty of free apps, some cost $50+
  • There were at least a dozen tip calculators
  • There were seven different apps that turned your iPhone into a “flashlight” by just having a blank screen. Five of them you have to pay for.
  • Photo sharing, geotagging, and social networking all had plenty of apps available, for the iPhone user with a thousand friends.
  • Some apps were very location specific, like the Berlin Trip Planner.
  • Some apps were overpriced: PacMan for $10?! Free Cell for $1.99?
  • Basic apps, like note takers and dayplanners, have free versions if you look for them and don’t need all the features.

The Good Apps:
BoxOffice
Finding movies in nearby theaters is so easy with BoxOffice. It automatically locates where you are and lists all nearby theaters and showtimes. Or, if you want to search by movie, it list all the movies currently in theaters along with each movie’s rating from RottonTomatoes.com. Best of all, it’s still fast when using the EDGE network, for us poor folk who couldn’t get a 3G.

Midomi
There have been times when I’ve been out and heard a song playing that I liked but didn’t recognize. Well, Midomi can hear just a snippet of a song and come back with the title, artist, YouTube videos, iTunes Store link, song samples and related or similar songs. You can even hum or sing to Midomi if you have a tune stuck in your head but forget what it’s called (though you have to be somewhat in tune). Then there’s the standard say or type search methods, which aren’t quite as fun but it’s great to have options. Although Midomi didn’t recognize a Russian song, it did great at finding most other types, with some Japanese and Spanish results even showing up. A great little free program; much better than the similar but inferior Shazam.

Graffitio
This one is great in concept: anywhere you are, you can post a virtual note attached to that place that other Graffitio users could see. For example, I go to a little cafe, love thier coffee and leave a quick note using Graffitio. Now when someone else comes in they turn on Graffitio and see my note. They don’t have to search for the name of the cafe, they don’t have to be part of my friends network; the notes are linked to each location, like virtual graffitti, taking the geotagging concept and actually doing something useful with it. It’s a great concept with lots of potential; but for now that’s all it is unless everyone starts using it. I’ll be doing my part!

Some quick and simple free apps:
Scribble: Lets you write on the screen with your hand.
MyLite: The only flashlight app worth looking at; it has color options and strobe modes, without the gall to charge for a blank screen.
Restaurants: Fast-food eaters who want to watch thier Nutrition facts will find this offline index handy.
Mobile News: The AP Wire Service for iPhone. Slow over EDGE network.
Pandora: An internet radio app that does a great job at finding your music tastes, delivering more than just mainstream artists or superficial similarities. Again, not that smooth while using it over EDGE.
Jirbo Games: There are a handful of quick fun games by Jirba, like Concentration and Breakout, but all using cute little animal icons. They’re like what you would expect to come free on any phone, and a pleasent enough way to kill time.
Aurora Feint: A puzzle game with level raising and powerups. Fairly complex for a free game, and addicting too.
TapTap : The iPhone answer to Guitar Hero on Tour, this rythmic tapping game also has you moving the iPhone itself to hit certain beats. Only a few songs are available, but more will supposedly be available latter, though maybe not for free.

A final thing to look out for when shopping the App Store: Some apps are location dependant and won’t work if you’re not in a supported city, even the basic Yellow Pages app didn’t have Anchorage, AK, although most of the other applications had no problem pinpointing my location. It’s important to check though, especially before paying for an app.

July 14, 2008 at 12:25 pm 1 comment

Now there’s a shape-changing building

By Aaron Burkhart

This blew my mind. After I recently wrote about the shape-changing concept car from BMW, now I find there’s a shape-changing building in Dubai that’s actually expected to be completed in only around two years. 

David Fisher’s Dynamic Architecture design has a central structure, with pre-fab housing units attached that can move up and around, with each floor spinning independently. But wait, there’s more! The spinning floors will be wind-driven, and the ceiling of each floor will be covered in solar panels, actually creating it’s own electricity — and maybe enough to power nearby buildings as well; it’s not only futuristic, it really has a practical purpose! 

There was an AP video last night that explained how everything would turn and morph, with units even going to the ground floor so residents could park their cars inside before going back up, but today that video seem to be missing UPDATE: found a link to it; make sure to watch the intro movie on the Dynamic stie to see the concept in mind-bending action.

June 25, 2008 at 9:05 am Leave a comment

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