Tag Archives: tech

Picture, If You Will, the Person Who Buys This $14,000 Gamer Chair

Photo: Victoria Song (Gizmodo)

After launching its ridiculous Predator Thronos “gaming chair” last year, a common refrain Acer heard from hopeful buyers was they regretted they couldn’t plop down the $30,000 for the damn thing as it wouldn’t fit in their homes. This year, Acer says its successor, the Predator Thronos Air, is way more “accessible” thanks to a 25 percent reduction in weight, smaller footprint, and added massage feature.

I got to check out the Predator Thronos Air in person, and having done so, it’s apparent Acer and I do not agree on the definition of accessible.

The original Thronos felt like your typical trade show stunt. A perfect example of something Acer built because they could and it would generate buzz that could trickle down to its other products. The existence of the Thronos Air makes me question whether Acer is aware that’s what it was. It very earnestly feels like the company thinks this is something more than a handful of weird millionaires want to buy.

On the floor, I chatted with an Acer representative about why the company felt the need to even come out with a successor to an obvious niche product. That representative told me it really was about listening to user feedback and making a chair that wasn’t just a concept. “The Thronos Air,” the rep told me with a straight face, “this is the chair that people can actually buy and put in their homes.” He went on to tell me that Acer had actually had several potential buyers willing to fork over $30,000, if not for the fact their homes couldn’t physically support the chair.

If you scroll to the bottom of the original Thronos’ product page, you’ll find some fine print. The chair requires an area that measures 8 feet by 8 feet by 8 feet, a floor that can support at least 715 pounds, and it must be installed on the ground floor of a household or “similar environment.” So no apartment dwellers, no penthouse suites, and I guess your mansion needs its own RGB gaming cave on the ground or basement floor. Honestly, the mental image of the Thronos crashing through multiple floors of a house is equal parts funny and horrifying.

This chair will give you tender, loving ministrations for the low, low price of $14,000
Photo: Victoria Song (Gizmodo)

The Thronos Air was meant to alleviate some of that while keeping the decadent indulgence of the original. The Acer rep told me it’s made of lighter materials, hence why it weighs 25-percent less. (Though, if math serves, that means you need a floor that can support 536 pounds. That’s hardly Air-like.) And as an added bonus, they added a massage cushion, because if you’re going to spend a year’s worth of my rent on a chair, why the fuck not.

As you might imagine, as soon as the press conference ended, the new Thronos Air was swarmed by sweaty tech journalists elbowing each other for the novelty of gaming for a few minutes while having their backs massaged by this monstrous contraption. I, thinking myself clever, snapped some shots, asked my questions, and scheduled a private booth tour to check out the Thronos Air later. Better photos, no crowds, a chance to shoot video, and really formulate my thoughts and impressions.

I thought I’d have more time with the Predator Thronos Air. Alas, it was too thicc to move to the showroom floor.
Photo: Victoria Song (Gizmodo)

Here’s the funny thing. When I showed up for the booth tour at Messe Berlin, I got some sad news. The Predator Thronos Air would not be available on the showroom floor. After the press conference, it was dismantled and shipped elsewhere. The process had apparently taken 3-4 hours, and given the weight, it just wasn’t worth the effort to transport it from a few halls down and up some stairs. It’s not that it couldn’t be done. There’s an original Thronos in the booth (though to be fair, Acer probably has more than one of those). Someone somewhere decided the more “accessible” version just wasn’t worth it, and you know what, I don’t really blame them.

A few months ago, Gizmodo bought a DIY custom 8-monitor rig off Craigslist for $640. It’s admittedly lacking in RGB lighting and cupholders, and there’s definitely no massage component. The original owner only spent $2,300 and a couple hundred hours to build something that functionally, is similar to the Acer’s Thronos chairs. Mayhaps the lesson here is if you can’t resist the thrall of multiple monitors, at least check Craigslist before shelling out $14,000.

We’re live from Berlin at IFA 2019! Click here to read our complete coverage.

Source: Kotaku.com

This Unassuming Charger Will Power a Switch, Connect It to a TV, and Charge Other Stuff Too

After releasing a simple dongle that finally let the Nintendo Switch connect to wireless headphones, Human Things is back with another product that vastly improves the console’s portability. The Genki Covert Dock replaces the Switch’s charger and TV dock with a streamlined wall adapter that does everything.

Soon after the Switch was released it was discovered that its bulky dock, which allowed the console to be connected to a TV, couldn’t be replaced with one of the existing USB-C to HDMI cable adapters already available for phones and tablets. It didn’t take long for third-party accessory makers to figure out how to replicate what the Switch’s TV dock was doing, and releasing much smaller solutions, but none of them promise as much functionality as Human Things new Genki Covert Dock in such a compact package.

The Genki Covert Dock might be the only adapter you’ll need to carry every day.
Photo: Human Things (Kickstarter)

The adapter looks no bigger than the USB-C wall wart Nintendo includes for charging the Switch, but it adds an extra USB 3.1 port for charging other devices like a smartphone, and an HDMI port for connecting the Switch to a TV while its battery is being replenished. You’ll need to remember to bring the requisite cables, but the Genki Covert Dock, which uses Gallium Nitride instead of silicon so there’s more room inside for additional electronics, should take up considerably less room in your daypack or carry-on.

It’s not only compatible with the Nintendo Switch, though. The Genki Covert Dock can also be used with smartphones and tablets (both Android and iOS devices) that support connectivity to an external monitor or display, including laptops. When connecting the Switch to a TV the Covert Dock does need to be plugged in, but for other mobile devices it doesn’t require access to an outlet—it should grab all the power it needs from the device itself.

It seems like it could be a must-have accessory for Switch fans who travel, making it easier to connect the console to a friend’s or a hotel room’s TV. But even if your Switch never leaves the house, swapping out the portable’s included wall wart with the Genki Covert Dock will give you an extra USB port for charging another device, and you can never have too many of those.

So what’s the catch? Like the Genki Bluetooth dongle, Human Things has chosen to bring this product to consumers through a Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign that’s looking to raise a modest $50,000 in funding. There’s always a risk that a product launched this way may never see the light of day, or be subjected to lengthy delays, but the company’s previous Kickstarter campaign was a success, it fulfilled all the orders to those who had backed it, and presumably it learned something about the process along the way. Early-bird backers can pre-order the Genki Covert Dock for $49, with delivery expected to come as early as December of this year. You can always hold off on pre-ordering until reviews of the hardware are published, but you can expect the price to be considerably more after the Kickstarter campaign closes.

Source: Kotaku.com

This Super-Customizable Controller Might Be a Secret Weapon for the Nintendo Switch

There are casual gamers who like to occasionally pick up a game to relax for a few minutes, and there are more dedicated players who will devote hours to completing games and unlocking achievements. And then there’s those gamers who refer to themselves as “pros” or “hardcore” who must have the highest score, beat a game in the fastest time, and dominate everyone else online. 8BitDo’s new SN30 Pro+ controller, which can be thoroughly customized and reprogrammed through a new app, is designed for that latter crowd.

The SN30 Pro+ looks like a hybrid of Nintendo’s Switch Pro Controller, and Sony’s PS4 controller.
Photo: 8BitDo

Over the past few years, 8BitDo has cemented itself as one of the better third-party controller makers with designs inspired by the gamepads included with classic consoles, but upgraded with extra features, wireless Bluetooth functionality, and improved hardware. If you’ve still got an original NES or SNES console plugged into your TV, 8BitDo’s even got plug and play wireless controller adapters so you can enjoy retro titles without the hassle of cords.

The company’s controller lineup has primarily focused on retro gaming so far, but when the Switch arrived it started adding more modern features to its controllers like extra shoulder buttons and analog joysticks. The new 8BitDo SN30 Pro+ features a design reminiscent of Nintendo’s own Switch Pro Controller (not a bad thing) but with the analog sticks arranged side by side like Sony does with the PlayStation’s gamepads.

When officially available on August 7, the SN30 Pro+ will come in three different color schemes.
Photo: 8BitDo

The 8BitDo SN30 Pro+ was first revealed back in 2018 around E3 as a prototype, with features like rumbling haptic feedback, wireless Bluetooth support, built-in motion controls, better ergonomics than the company’s SN30 Pro, and USB-C charging. It was expected to arrive sometime in late 2018, but 8BitDo ended up delaying its release while the company did some fine-tuning, as it explained on Twitter earlier this year.

It turns out that fine-tuning included the addition of one other major feature: the SN30 Pro+’s Ultimate Software which allows the controller to be excruciatingly customized and reprogrammed. Available for Windows and Mac OS at launch (a mobile version might eventually arrive) the software not only allows all of the controller’s buttons to be remapped to a gamer’s preferences, but it also allows multiple inputs to be programmed to a single button. So, yes, inputting the Konami code just got significantly easier.

In addition to programmability, the feel and responsiveness of the SN30 Pro+’s analog buttons and joysticks can also be customized and tweaked so they’re more or less responsive, and those customizations can be saved and reloaded so the controller can be adjusted on a game by game basis. It’s not the first time we’ve seen a controller that boasts such robust customizability, the ALL Controller promised similar functionality a couple of years ago, but it has yet to be released to backers of its Kickstarter campaign. 8BitDo’s SN30 Pro+, on the other hand, is available for pre-order now for $50, and will ship on August 7.

There is one feature the SN30 Pro+ is lacking, however, that could limit its adoption among pro gamers. Out of the box it supports Windows and Mac OS computers, the Nintendo Switch, mobile devices running Android, and even homebrew consoles that are compatible with Bluetooth controllers. What it doesn’t support is the Xbox One or the PS4 by default. Getting any of the 8BitDo controllers to work with those consoles requires additional adapters, and the added cost and hassle might not be worth it. 8BitDo has created simple adapters that allow Microsoft and Sony’s controllers to be used on other systems, but hopefully, it’s got an adapter in the works that allows its own controllers, including the SN30 Pro+, to play nice with the Xbox One and PS4.

Source: Kotaku.com

Apple Might Start Ditching Its Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Laptop Keyboards Later This Year

There hasn’t been an Apple product as universally maligned and hated as the company’s low profile butterfly keyboards since the Newton PDA. Introduced in 2015 to help MacBooks achieve thinner designs, even Gizmodo staffers have had keys on their laptops that broke, or inexplicably just stopped working. As a result, the company expanded its Keyboard Service Program to fix any problems, and even upgraded the keyboard’s materials; but 2019 could actually see Apple finally switch to a better scissor switch design.

According to a recent report by Apple analyst Ming-Chi Kuo, the company will introduce a new scissor switch style keyboard design later this year, reinforced with glass fibers that will not only improve durability, but will also extend key travel which has been another major complaint with the butterfly style switches. In layman’s terms: pounding away on the new keyboard design should offer a much better tactile experience. Kuo also points out that while the scissor switch design will still be more expensive than what most laptop makers are using, it will be actually cheaper than the butterfly design, so seemingly a win-win solution for Apple.

The bad news is that Ming-Chi Kuo also claims the new keyboard design will only be introduced on a new MacBook Air later this year, and not the 16-inch MacBook Pro that many suspect Apple will announce in the Fall. The MacBook Pro line supposedly won’t see the new scissor switch keyboards included until 2020, eventually replacing the butterfly keyboards altogether.

So if you’ve been holding off on upgrading your MacBook, you might want to hold out even longer now—if you can.

Source: Kotaku.com

Budweiser applies to trademark “the official beer of esports”

Photo: urbanbuzz (iStock)

As growth industries go, it’s difficult to come up with one that appeared as suddenly and has skyrocketed as rapidly as esports. From competitive Overwatch and League of Legends play to the team-affiliated NBA 2K League, professional video gaming is going mainstream in a big way.

Esports leagues have been pulling down lucrative TV deals of late, with ESPN and Turner Broadcasting locking down early contracts with various competitive organizations. (They also have to compete with live-streaming platform Twitch, which beat virtually everyone else to the broadcasting punch.) It then stands to reason that A-list sponsors will continue to jump on the lucrative new medium, and thus Budweiser has reportedly filed for a trademark on the phrase “the official beer of esports,” per the U.S. Patent And Trademark Office’s online database.

According to pro gaming site The Esports Observer, Anheuser Busch (Budweiser’s parent company) has also filed for trademarks on “the official beer of gaming” and “the official beer of gamers.” (We thought that the official beer of gamers was that Miller Lite can-controller you can use to play the classics, but hey.) Bud Light is already an Overwatch League sponsor, and while the broader trademark remains pending as of this article’s publication, it’s an aggressive step in turning the macro-brew conglomerate into the boozy face of the next big sports industry.

Source: Kotaku.com

Am I Wrong For Wanting a Better Screen on a $1,500 Smartwatch?

Photo: Andrew Liszewski (Gizmodo)

You can get a very capable smartwatch for a few hundred bucks now, as long as you’re not overly concerned with aesthetics. Following luxury watchmakers like TAG Heuer, Garmin’s new MARQ line strives to finally bridge the gap between stylish analog timepieces and less stylish smartwatches. But with a price tag ranging from $1,500 to $2,500, a disappointing display lets down the nicest smartwatch I’ve ever strapped to my wrist.

Garmin designed the MARQ line to emulate analog tool watches, made by companies like Breitling and TAG Heuer, which include additional functionality and complications tailored to specific sports or activities. For the MARQ line that includes five different pieces: the Aviator, Driver, Captain, Expedition, and Athlete. At $1,500, the Athlete, which we got to spend time with, is the most affordable option in Garmin’s lineup, but it in no way feels like the company cheaped out on the base model.

The Apple Watch has a beautiful aesthetic and is a great example of Apple’s attention to detail when it comes to product design and materials. But while I wouldn’t describe it as frail, I also tend to avoid wearing it during more physical activities like cycling, kayaking, or swimming as I’ve seen friends’ Apple Watches bite the dust during an accident. By comparison, I feel I could run head first into a hurricane with the MARQ Athlete strapped to my wrist, and it would be the only thing that didn’t come out the other side without a scratch.

Made from actual titanium, the same stuff the Air Force builds fighter jets from, the MARQ Athlete genuinely feels like you’re strapping a tank to your wrist. It’s also got a sapphire glass screen, so you’ll need to do more than just fall off a bike to shatter or even scratch the watch’s face, and an equally Tonka-tough ceramic bezel. The five buttons used to navigate the watch’s user interface feel even more solid than those on the Apple Watch. There’s no wiggle whatsoever, and they respond with a firm but satisfying click when pressed. However, aside from giving you something to fidget with, I can’t figure out why the MARQ Athlete’s crown dial actually turns.

Since it falls at the most affordable end of the MARQ line, the Athlete comes with a strap made from firm silicone rubber instead of a more exotic material like leather. But I prefer rubber straps, and I’m almost certain the silicone used here is strong enough to tow a truck.

Functionally, the MARQ line includes almost every last navigation, fitness, and activity tracking feature Garmin has developed for its other wearables to date. The Athlete has an optical heart rate/pulse oximeter sensor built in which should be more than enough for even die-hard gym rats, but the watch can be connected to other hardware as well, such as chest strap heart rate monitors, or bicycle cadence trackers. It can also track rides and runs using Sony’s GPS hardware which Garmin adopted to help improve the MARQ Athlete’s battery life. All of your metrics also sync to the Garmin Connect mobile app, giving you a more robust look and breakdown of your recent performances. And when connected to a smartphone, the MARQ Athlete will mirror your notifications so you can keep your phone buried during a workout—you just can’t respond to any of them like the Apple Watch or WearOS smartwatches allow.

It’s not packing as many pixels as the Apple Watch’s display does, but the MARQ Athlete can still squeeze a lot of data on screen.
Photo: Andrew Liszewski (Gizmodo)

The watch runs its own custom operating system and UI, and unless you’re familiar with Garmin’s other wearables, it will take some time to find your way around the various apps and menus used to customize the watch’s appearance and functionality. As with the Apple Watch, I wish the MARQ Athlete could be customized using the mobile app instead, as I often found myself getting frustrated when an incorrect button press suddenly sent me back to the home screen and away from a menu that took a while to find.

But overall, the MARQ Athlete seems to check every box for fitness buffs wanting a smartwatch they can wear to both the office and the gym. Garmin has opted for premium materials almost everywhere on the timepiece. Yet I think its decision to go with a reflective LCD screen was a mistake and a disappointment.

I partially understand why Garmin made this decision; screens are one of the biggest power draws on wearable devices, and even with it being turned off most of the day, the vibrant OLED display can still kill the Apple Watch’s battery in just a day. In comparison, even with features like scrolling maps and standalone GPS tracking, the MARQ Athlete can run for well over a week on a single charge with its LCD display on all the time. The extra fitness-focused complications on the MARQ Athlete’s face allow an athlete to quickly check their metrics as often as they need, but unfortunately the watch’s display is almost always difficult to see.

The MARQ Athlete’s dim screen also makes it easily obscured by reflections.
Photo: Andrew Liszewski (Gizmodo)

The reflective LCD screen works great in direct sunlight with the watch held up to your face. The display is bright, crisp, and has excellent contrast. But find yourself in the shade, or indoors, or out at night, or next to a bright window, or not able to look directly at the watch when riding a bike, and the screen becomes washed out and all but impossible to read at a glance. That not only goes for trying to discern tiny numbers like your heart rate, but even the moving hands on the face that show the time can be very hard to see, and are often obscured by something as common as a bright reflection.

After taking several rides with both Apple and Garmin’s smartwatches strapped to each wrist, the Apple Watch’s OLED display far outperformed the MARQ Athlete’s reflective LCD no matter what the conditions were. My cycling metrics on the OLED were visible even with bright reflections washing out the Apple Watch’s face, but quickly checking the MARQ Athlete required me to take my hand off the handlebar, which wasn’t exactly safe on a bumpy trail.

Despite the $1,500 price tag, which is also what TAG Heuer wants for its smartwatch, I really liked the MARQ Athlete and would have actually recommended it to someone who likes the functionality of a smartwatch but prefers something more traditional looking, and more durable, on their wrist. Only that screen is as much a heart breaker as it is a deal breaker. I would wait for the next generation of the MARQ line, and cross your fingers that Garmin switches to OLED to round out an otherwise excellent modern timepiece.

README

  • An expensive smartwatch that, for the most part, manages to justify its price tag with premium materials and excellent build quality.
  • Features just about every kind of fitness and activity tracking an athlete could need, including sleep tracking, and robust stat analysis through the Garmin Connect app.
  • Garmin’s OS and UI could use a bit more polish. Customizing the watch, and digging through deep menus, can be a bit confusing using the watch’s five unlabeled buttons.
  • That reflective LCD screen is a heart breaker, and probably a deal breaker for most. The always-on functionality is nice (in theory) but it comes at the cost of legibility. It works great in direct sunlight, but becomes almost impossible to read at a glance in almost any other lighting condition. An included backlight makes it visible at night, but it’s too dim to help anywhere else.

Source: Kotaku.com

Google’s DeepMind AI Takes Down Human Players In Quake III’s Capture The Flag Mode

Google’s DeepMind AI lab has been hard at work creating programs to take on human players across a variety of games these last few years. In 2016 its AlphaGo beat the best Go player in the world. Earlier this year, its Alpha Star defeated two middle-tier pros at StarCraft II. Now it’s learning to win at multiplayer games like Quake III.

“Artificially intelligent agents are getting better and better at two-player games, but most real-world endeavors require teamwork,” DeepMind’s researchers wrote in a paper published in Science today. To test DeepMind’s capacity to excel in multiplayer games, the team created a program to play against humans in a modified version of Quake III Arena’s Capture the Flag mode. The program, nicknamed For the Win, was fed thousands of hours of game data to learn from. Weeks later it was able to take on human players. “Computer agents competed successfully against humans even when their reaction times were slowed to match those of humans,” the researchers wrote.

Games took place on randomly generated maps with teams’ bases on opposite sides. In Capture the Flag, players score points by picking up enemy flags and returning them to the home-team base. They can also shoot one another with lasers, causing any player who might be holding a flag to drop it and respawn back at their base. By giving the computer agents 450,000 rounds of Capture the Flag to analyze, they were able to learn the game well enough to deploy strategies capable of defeating a team of humans.

According to the paper, the AI agents analyzed situations for data like “‘Do I have the flag?,’ ‘Did I see my teammate recently?,’ and ‘Will I be in the opponent’s base soon?’” By checking the answers to questions like these against how many points were being scored, the AI agents were able to come up with proactive tactics like having one player race toward the enemy base while another retreated with the enemy flag, knowing that as soon as that teammate dumped it at their base, the flag would respawn and immediately be recapturable at the other end.

In the end, the DeepMind team found that its agents were, on average, able to beat teams of two human players by a margin of 16 captures. “In a separate study, we probed the exploitability of the FTW [For The Win] agent by allowing a team of two professional games testers with full communication to play continuously against a fixed pair of FTW agents,” the researchers wrote. “Even after 12 hours of practice, the human game testers were only able to win 25% (6.3% draw rate) of games against the agent team.”

The only time humans were able to beat the AI agents was when they teamed up together. A team consisting of one human and one AI agent had a 5 percent greater win probability than a team of just AI agents. It’s one of the more interesting findings, since it suggests that the AI program is able to adapt to playing with non-AI teammates and that the two players potentially make up for one another’s weaknesses. Human players tended to be better at long-distance shooting, while AI agents were better at navigating the environment to capture the flag.

These findings don’t mean that AI players are likely to defeat the world’s best Call of Duty or Halo players any time soon, but as the researchers point out, the work is progressing faster than many had previously thought possible.

Source: Kotaku.com

The New Tamagotchi Can Marry and Breed

Photo: Andrew Liszewski (Gizmodo)
Toys and CollectiblesAction figures, statues, exclusives, and other merchandise. Beware: if you look here, you’re probably going to spend some money afterwards.  

Twenty-two years after its initial release, and several years after countless revivals and re-releases, Tamagotchis have returned yet again with some interesting features like smartphone connectivity and the ability for your virtual pets to marry someone else’s and have kids. Tamagotchi? More like Tamagotchu for 18 years.

If you’re somehow unfamiliar with the toy, the Tamagotchi is like the modern version of the pet rock, but with most of the responsibilities and care that a real-life animal would require. That includes feeding your virtual pet, caring for it, playing with it, cleaning it, and generally interacting with it on a regular basis to keep it alive, happy, and growing. The latest iteration, Tamagotchi On, expands what you can do with the digital creature, but as an adult with a lot on his plate already, am I the only one who’s starting to feel these are more overwhelming than fun?

The most obvious update to Tamagotchi On is that it’s almost gigantic compared to previous versions of the toy that could hang off a keychain without being noticed. The new version is considerably larger, and as a result, it might have a hard time competing for pocket space against a smartphone.

One thing that hasn’t changed with Tamagotchi On are the three simple buttons used to interact with the virtual pet and to navigate the toy’s menus. It works, once you get used to how the navigation works (the buttons are unlabelled) but as the menus, settings, and options have expanded quite a bit in this version, it might finally be time for Bandai America to consider introducing an alternative—like a tiny touchscreen now that smartwatches have demonstrated they’re not impossibly small to use.

One small gripe: why didn’t Bandai America include a keychain with the new version? It has the holes to attach one, but it’s BYOK.

The Tamagotchi On’s full-color screen isn’t new, that feature was introduced as far back as 2008 with the Tamagotchi Plus Color in Japan, but it’s finally making an appearance here in the US. The colors are vibrant, even in bright light, and given the screen’s small size the lack of pixel density isn’t an issue. Besides, the crude pixelated graphics and stuttered animations are part of a Tamagotchi’s charm and appeal at this point. I’m not sure if I’d want a virtual pet that looked and acted more lifelike—I’d be devastated when it eventually died.

That being said, all the features that have been added to the Tamagotchi line over the years are starting to make the toy’s menus feel a little bloated. You’ll find yourself randomly digging through endless sub-menus to find an option you’re looking for, and a display with more resolution would allow more options to be squeezed onto each screen.

The ability for two Tamagotchi Ons to wirelessly communicate over IR isn’t new either, that feature was first introduced with the Tamagotchi Connection back in 2004. But it now facilitates more interactions between Tamagotchis on different devices. You can have playdates, send your virtual pet off to visit a friend or a hotel, and even propose marriage to another Tamagotchi. If they say yes, your virtual pets will consummate their relationship (presumably off-screen) resulting in each one receiving an egg that will hatch and grow into a child that looks like both its parents. Up to 16 generations of a family can exist on a device at a given time, which sounds exhausting. To make things a little easier, there’s even the option for your younger Tamagotchi to spend the day being babysat by its parents.

Tamagotchi On will be available starting in July for $60—which is the least appealing feature of the latest version—they’re no longer a cheap $15 impulse purchase. But when it launches, Bandai America will also be releasing an accompanying mobile app (it wasn’t available for testing yet) that the Tamagotchi can wirelessly connect to to further expand what your virtual pet can do, where it can go, and who it can meet—including Tamagotchis all around the world. Instead of trying to compete with smartphones, Tamagotchis may have finally embraced them so kids have more incentive to keep their pets alive.

Note: at the time of publication both of the writer’s Tamagotchi were still alive and well.

Source: Kotaku.com

I Miss MiniDiscs

The Matrix
Screenshot: Warner Bros.

In the long history of recorded media, Sony’s MiniDisc format barely registers as a blip on the timeline. In hindsight, it was doomed from the start—forced to compete with immensely popular CDs and an emerging threat called MP3s. But despite now having instant access to millions of songs on my phone, there’s a part of me that deeply misses MiniDisc: a dead format that somehow still feels futuristic.

The first MiniDisc players were released by Sony in Japan in November of 1992, with an international debut coming the following month in Europe, Canada, and the United States. Unlike audio CDs, which stored music in an uncompressed 16-bit stereo file format, MiniDiscs compressed music using a proprietary audio format developed by Sony called Adaptive Transform Acoustic Coding—or ATRAC, for short. It meant that MiniDiscs could store almost the same amount of music as CDs could, but on a much smaller disc.

Photo: Andrew Liszewski (Gizmodo)

During my high school years, I went through several portable CD players because their size made them almost impossible to safely stash in a pocket. They always had to be held, which meant they repeatedly got dropped. MiniDisc players were considerably smaller by comparison, and some were almost as compact as the first Apple iPods. The players were also easy to pocket, as were the discs, which came protected in a plastic housing so, unlike CDs, they were almost impossible to scratch and damage.

The ability to record your own mixes was a big part of Sony’s MiniDisc marketing.

MiniDiscs were also recordable, reviving a feature that made analog cassette tapes so popular in the ‘80s. You could create your own mix albums by directly connecting a MiniDisc player to a stereo, or record tracks right from a CD player. Eventually, every desktop computer would come with a built-in CD writer, but MiniDiscs streamlined the process. The university where I studied broadcast even switched to MiniDisc players for field recordings and remote interviews as the hardware was both cheaper and easier than the professional solutions in use at the time.

But what I love most about MiniDiscs was that using the format made me feel like I was a character in a movie depicting a gritty sci-fi future. CDs always felt so lifeless to me: blank discs etched with millions of invisible microscopic dots. But a MiniDiscs had character. Its iridescent sheen was only occasionally visible through its protective plastic housing, and it could be tossed around casually.

Even Neo used MiniDisc.

The satisfying clunk of sliding a MiniDisc into a player and closing the door made the hardware seem like a piece of technology born from a Hollywood prop studio. A little part of me felt like a hacker uploading a virus every time I swapped in a new disc (no doubt inspired by their appearances in films like The Matrix and Strange Days) even when I was probably just loading tracks from the Jurassic Park soundtrack.

There are many reasons why MiniDiscs failed. Giant electronics companies love propriety formats because if it catches on and becomes a standard, other giant electronics companies who want to play along have to pay to license the technology. But consumers prefer choice, and while companies other than Sony produced players and discs, it was hard to find cheaper non-Sony hardware in the gigantic North American market. As for buying pre-recorded albums on MiniDisc? It was next to impossible outside Japan.

If Reef couldn’t sell MiniDiscs to the masses, no one could.

On a technical level, MiniDisc was an inferior format to its competitors. Sony’s ATRAC format also played a hand. It did a decent job at squeezing music down so that an hour’s worth of tunes could fit on a MiniDisc, but its sound quality wasn’t as good as what you could get from CDs and Digital Audio Tape. The average consumer couldn’t tell the difference, but audiophiles with deep pockets could, which meant that MiniDiscs were never really treated as a “Serious” audio format.

But MiniDisc’s final death blow came at the hands of another audio compression codec known as MP3. Sound files could be compressed to one-tenth their original size while still maintaining CD quality, and when the Fraunhofer Society released the first MP3 encoder to the public in 1994, it arrived at a time when computer hard drives were large enough, and cheap enough, to store a vast music collection, and at a time when the internet became fast enough to easily share those tiny music files. A few years later, MP3-compatible portable media players arrived, and it didn’t take long for them to be able to store thousands of songs and hundreds of hours of music on a single tiny device—no disc swapping required. Enter the iPod. Game over.

By some metrics, the MiniDisc would be considered a failure, sure. but thanks to its popularity in Japan, Sony didn’t officially stop shipping MiniDisc devices until 2013; six years after the first iPhone went on sale, and 21 years after MiniDisc’s debut. That’s a decent lifespan for a modern device, and it shows that like me, quite a few people found something to love in the format despite its flaws.

Source: Kotaku.com

20 Years Ago, Microsoft Changed How We Mouse Forever

Photo: Microsoft

Twenty years ago, in April 1999, Microsoft introduced an update to its IntelliMouse line of input devices. On top it didn’t look much different than its predecessors—it still had a few buttons and a scroll wheel—but underneath it introduced a technology to the masses that brought an end to the prehistoric days of cleaning dirt and grime out of computer mice.

I was a third-year college student at that point, and my digital media program had me spending endless hours in Photoshop, version 5.5, purchased with a much-welcomed student discount. My classes weren’t textbook dependent, which left money for pricey photo-editing software, and a desktop workstation that while powerful at the time, would be laughable today (16MB of RAM baby!). What wasn’t in the budget was a fancy Wacom tablet, which was still primarily targeted at professionals with budgets that could afford such luxuries. I was stuck using a mouse, which at the time relied on an archaic rubber-coated metal ball to translate my hand motions to the cursor on the screen.

If you did any pixel pushing two decades ago, you can probably already relate to this wound I’m opening. My mouse worked as designed, but the downside of that heavy ball dragging around is that it picked up dirt, which accumulated inside the device, gumming up the sensors and quickly causing the hardware—and my cursor—to behave erratically. It frustrated me to no end. I would find myself having to clean it every 15 minutes while working late into the night on a project, and even scrubbing my desk clean, or swapping out mouse pads every few days failed to alleviate the problem. The subtle mouse movements required for detailed Photoshop work didn’t register, and on more than one occasion, I will admit to repeatedly slamming the mouse down on my desk in frustration. (That always fixes tech issues, right?)

All that changed on April 14, 1999, when at the COMDEX expo in Las Vegas, a now-defunct trade show similar to today’s CES, Microsoft announced its IntelliMouse Explorer: a mouse that traded the dirt sucking rolling ball for LEDs and a digital camera that could optically track the mouse’s movements with extreme precision.

I don’t remember where I first heard about the IntelliMouse Explorer—there’s a good chance it popped up in an issue of Popular Science at the time—but when it was released a few months later in October, I was one of the first in line to get one. At $75, and well over $100 here in Canada, it was extremely expensive for a computer mouse, but at that point, I would have given up a kidney for the upgrade.

Microsoft was far from the first company to incorporate optical tracking into a mouse. The approach dates back as far as 1980 when a pair of inventors came up with two different approaches to tracking mouse movements through imaging. The technology first became commercially available with the Xerox STAR office computer in 1981, but with a $16,500 price tag—the equivalent of over $45,000 today—it was a business-only machine. Decades later, companies like Sun Microsystems included laser-powered mice with its equally pricey servers and workstations, but special reflective mouse pads were often required to use them. The average consumer doesn’t want to have to jump through those hoops.

Based on technology developed by Hewlett-Packard, Microsoft’s IntelliMouse Explorer arrived with a price tag that could be justified by even cash-strapped students like me. Even better, the underside of the mouse was completely sealed, preventing even the tiniest speck of dirt from penetrating its insides, and it improved on its predecessors by working on almost any surface that wasn’t too reflective. I remember getting back to my dorm room and plugging in the Explorer for the first time, wondering who had a rig fancy enough to use the included PS2 to USB adapter. There were undoubtedly a few driver installation hiccups along the way, but once Windows 98 was happy, I fired up Photoshop and strapped in for the smoothest mouse experience I’d ever had. Problem solved.

In addition to that game-changing optical sensor, the IntelliMouse Explorer also introduced a couple of extra programmable buttons which seemed unnecessary to me at first, but it soon became an indispensable way to browse the web, letting me quickly jump forward and back between sites. (Tabs hadn’t been invented yet.) It didn’t take long for Microsoft’s competitors to follow with optical mice of their own. Apple’s arrived the year after in 2000, and in 2004, Logitech introduced a mouse powered by lasers. Extra buttons—lots of them—would eventually become the industry norm, and companies would soon find themselves competing with each other to see who could introduce the most accurate optical tracking technology to appeal to picky PC gamers.

I can count on my fingers the number of times a technology has thoroughly improved my life—more often than not they tend to complicate things as well. (I’m looking at you, iPhone.) But 20 years later, the IntelliMouse Explorer is an upgrade that changed everything without any downside.

Source: Kotaku.com