Monday, June 21, 2010

Dolby Axon Will Change the Way We Yell at Gamers Online

Dolby Axon Voice ChatXbox Live may have brought in–game voice communication to the masses but voice chatting with your friends and opponents during a deathmatch or raid isn't anything new for PC Gamers. Some of the most popular VOIP solutions for PC gamers are Ventrilo and Teamspeak, programs you've undoubtedly heard of if you've ever needed to speak with a fellow gamer online while using a computer. Other lesser known options are Skype, which is popular for smaller and more personal discussions, and Mumble, which uses a more up-to-date codec and minimizes latency. Both of which have been steadily gaining headway in the VOIP scene. However, a few people are catching on to this new kid on the block known as Dolby Axon, which promises to revolutionize the way we talk to and interact with each other in-game.

With this new technology your voice is intended to be integrated into the game itself rather than being simply played over the top of it like with most contemporary voice communication software. For example, as your teammates move around you so will the direction their voices come from. If there is a teammate directly to your right calling out enemy fire ahead, you will hear your teammates voice to your right without any distortion to the in-game gunfire coming directly in front of you. In addition, in-game obstacles like walls and buildings will muffle and drown out the voices of your teammates. Dolby also has some innovative ideas with the technology including spy microphones, the ability to hear through walls, throwing your voice, and more.

Right now the technology is confirmed to ship with Jumpgate Evolution, an online space combat simulator, and Mission Against Terror, an online FPS title. Dolby is also hoping that console game developers will embrace the technology, which would allow console gamers to have their voices mapped to the game environment in the same ways its currently being used on the PC. The ability to keenly flow through conversation in a group and knowing where people are by the sound of their voice, coupled with direct sound to game interactions should add much to the game experience. In addition Dolby assures us that any headset and microphone combination will work perfectly with the technology and lower level system owners can breathe a sigh of relief, Dolby has considered you as well.

Read all about Dolby Axon on their site.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

If Google told you to walk into traffic, would you do it?

Look Mom! No sidewalks.Do you ever wonder why absolutely everything has warning labels and liability clauses attached to them? Warnings like "Do not use while sleeping" on hair dryers are absolutely needed because many people today exhibit an exuberant lack of common sense.

Take Lauren Rosenberg for example, who innocently enough used Google Maps on her Blackberry to get walking directions from one part of her Utah town to another. Google provided these, telling her as part of the route to walk for about 2 miles along the serenely-named “Deer Valley Drive.” However, that is simply an alternate name for the short section of road which is actually Utah State Route 224, which as you can imagine, isn't a place for people to be taking a daytime stroll. Instead of finding an alternate route or walking safely back to her home, Rosenberg decided that Google knows best and meandered onto the highway which had no sidewalk or pedestrian paths.

Surprise! She was hit by a vehicle and is now suing Google for her medical expenses ($100,000), as well as punitive damages. She is also suing the driver who struck her, Patrick Harwood of Park City, Utah. Here's an excerpt from Rosenburg's complaint filing.

"As a direct and proximate cause of Defendant Google’s careless, reckless and negligent providing of unsafe directions, Plaintiff Lauren Rosenberg was led onto a dangerous highway, and was thereby stricken by a motor vehicle, causing her to suffer sever permanent physical, emotional, and mental injuries, including pain and suffering."

If you do a walking directions search from a laptop or computer on Google, you get one of those hair dryer warnings:

"Walking directions are in beta. Use caution – This route may be missing sidewalks or pedestrian paths."

Even Microsoft's Bing has a similar warning when using their walking directions:

"Caution, this route may be missing sidewalks or other pedestrian paths."

The problem with Rosenburg was that she was using a blackberry screen which only has a limited amount of space. If Google were to put any kind of warning on her screen, where would there be room for a map and directions? It seems Google has learned its lesson not to put faith in the common sense of the people. Not walking out into a busy street was a skill I learned in Pre-School.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Video Gamers aka Dream Controlling Masters

Video Gamer and his DreamsA study suggests that playing video games before bedtime may give gamers a higher level of awareness and control in their dreams giving them a better chance to have a lucid dream. Lucid dreaming is simply being aware you are dreaming, while dreaming, and being able to influence that dream in one way or another. Lucid dreams usually occur while a person is in the middle of a regular dream and suddenly realizes that he or she is asleep and must be dreaming. The person is then said to become "lucid", and may enter one of many different levels of lucidity. At the lowest level, the dreamer may be dimly aware that he or she is dreaming, but not rationally enough so as to realize that all events, people, or actions in the dream are not real. At the highest level, the dreamer is fully aware that she or he is asleep, and can have complete control over all aspects of the dream.

Gamers and Dreams

While gaming at night might not give you the ability to alternate the reality of your dream worlds in the same fashion as "The Matrix", it could however give your mind an edge when facing nightmares and other mental trauma in the every day world. According to Jayne Gackenbach, a psychologist at Grant MacEwan University in Canada, dreams and video games both represent alternate realities which are commonly used by the mind to mimic threatening situations in a safe environment. In fact, several intriguing parallels between lucid dreamers and video gamers have emerged since Gackenbach began her research on video games and how they affect dreams.

The two groups are both capable of demonstrating high levels of focus and concentration, whether that be through lucid-training activities such as meditation and reality checks, or through hours spent mastering virtual worlds and combating countless enemies. In addition both lucid dreamers and gamers seemed to have better spatial skills and were less prone to motion sickness. These findings encouraged Gackenbach to survey the dreams of both non-gamers and hardcore gamers, beginning with two separate studies published in 2006.

The first study suggested that people who frequently played video games were more likely to report lucid dreams and dream control, or the ability to directly influence their dream environment. A second study attempted to narrow down several uncertainties of the first experiment by examining dreams that participants experienced from the night before and by focusing more intently on the dreams of gamers.

This study found that lucid dreams were common among gamers, but that they never had dream control over anything beyond their dream selves. In other words gamers are greatly capable of controlling their own actions in dreams, but are not very capable of altering their dream environments. The gamers also frequently flipped between a first person view from within their body and a third person view of themselves from the outside. This third person perspective was very rarely described as a calm detachment of somebody simply watching. These are very peculiar qualities in dreams which may stem from constantly watching and controlling the actions of a video-game character.

Viewing the Nightmare World in the Eyes of a Gamer

As mentioned before, dreams mimic threatening situations from real life in the safe environment of the dream world. Such nightmares would help organisms hone their survival skills in a protective environment. To test this theory, Gackenbach conducted a 2008 study with 35 males and 63 females, and assessed the threat levels experienced by the dreamers in their sleeping world. She found that gamers experienced less or even a reversed threat simulation in which the dreamer themselves had become the threatening presence. She also noted less aggression overall towards the dreamer, yet aggression in the gamer towards the dream often culminated in violence not unlike that seen in mature rated video games. In other words, a scary nightmare scenario turned into something fun for a gamer.

"What happens with gamers is something inexplicable," Gackenbach explained. "They don't run away, they turn and fight back. They're more aggressive than the norms. If you look at the actual overall amount of aggression, gamers have less aggression in dreams, but when they are aggressive, oh boy, they go off the top."

It appears indeed that video gamers are the undisputed masters of their dreams.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Palm webOS Design Director Jumps Ship to Google

This news doesn't bode well for Palm and their new owner HP, which recently declared their plan to double down on webOS and take the smartphone market by storm. The now former senior director of human interface and user experience for Palm, Matias Duarte, who was the genius behind webOS's user interface, has confirmed that he will be joining Google and the Android team as their User Experience Director.

While its a shame Duarte isn't sticking around to see things through with Palm, this is a major blow for HP and paints a brighter future for Android. Duarte has worked in the past with members of the current Android team when he was the director of design for the phone maker Danger, which like webOS provided a slick user interface for their phone called the Sidekick. In an odd turn of events, Danger was co-founded by Andy Rubin, who coincidentally left Danger to start Android Inc. in 2003. Since then Android was sold to Google, Rubin became Vice President of engineering, and Duarte rejoined his former colleagues at Android.

Currently Android phones are known for sacrificing aesthetic design and a pretty UI for more functionality and improved customization features. Gingerbread, the next version of Android, is already in the works and expected to release at the end of the year. While Duarte may not have much of an influence in steering Gingerbread, expect to see his full visual influence come into play on the following versions of Android.

Monday, May 24, 2010

5 Ways to Stay Safe Online

Online Criminal Spreading MalwareThe web is a fountain of information, a busy marketplace, and thriving social scene for those of who choose it to be so. While online criminals are nothing new, their methods and tendencies to undertake stealthy attacks on ordinary Web users are evolving in ways that can be hard to stop without the correct knowledge. In today's online world, hackers are lacing Web sites, sometimes even legitimate ones, with malware designed to secretly and silently infiltrate our PCs to steal sensitive personal information and also turn our the computers into tools that can be used to send more spam and malware onto the Internet. So without further ado, here are some basic tips for protecting yourself online from these faceless criminals.

1. Protect Your Web Browser

The most direct line of attack between the internet and your computer is the browser installed on the PC. Flaws found in browsers are one of the oldest techniques that online criminals have been using. These browser vulnerabilities download malware onto computers using hidden download methods that users will never notice and can't possibly know exist. Internet Explorer and Mozilla Firefox are the most targeted browsers due to the fact that they have been the most widely available and consequently are the most popular among users. Be sure to download updates for your browser regularly and you can be relatively sure that you are surfing safely.

However, your computer can still be exposed to malware in the time between a discovered vulnerability and the implemented security fix. In cases such as these, it is recommended that you use security software in conjunction with regular browser updates, especially if you are a Windows XP user. It would also help to use a more obscure browser such as opera or chrome, both of which are newer browsers on the market and don't have the same popularity as Firefox and IE.

2. Get Adobe Updates

Most consumers are familiar with Adobe Reader, which opens and reads PDF files, and Adobe’s Flash Player for its prominence in online web games. In recent years, a virtual epidemic of attacks has flooded Adobe attempting to exploit their security flaws. Nearly half of these attacks today come hidden in PDF files which will infect a computer as soon as its opened. The beauty of this kind of infection method is that no matter what kind of browser you might be using, its almost a sure thing that you're using Adobe Reader and Adobe Flash Player. The good news is that the majority of people getting infected via Adobe are running old, non-updated versions of their software, much of which has glaring security holes. Nowadays Adobe attempts to update automatically and it is as simple as following a few simple steps. If you would like to make sure your software is up to date, all you have to do is manually update Adobe.

To update Reader, open the application and then select the “Help” tab and click “Check for Updates” from the menu bar. After a few moments Adobe will determine if your software is up to date and if not it will prompt you to download the latest version. Since April 2010, Windows users have been able to choose to get future updates automatically without additional prompts by clicking “Edit”, then “Preferences”, then selecting “Updater” from the list and checking “Automatically install updates.” Mac users have a similar option available to them but Apple will require that they enter their password each time an update is installed. Adobe has elected not to allow silent and automatic updates due to many people being adverse to them.

3. Beware Malicious Ads

An increasingly popular way to get attacks onto trusted websites is to slip them directly into advertisements, usually by tricking smaller advertising networks. This practice has come to be known as Malvertising, which typically exploits software vulnerabilities or sends deceptive and harmful pop-up messages to the user. The most well known version of Malvertising, and one you've probably personally encountered, involves an alert that a malicious virus has been found on the computer, followed by urgent messages to buy the necessary software to remove it. Of course, there really is no harmful virus and the security software, called scareware, is nothing more than fake. This method is simply a ploy to get credit card numbers and a few quick bucks at the expense of a gullible person who believes the message they are seeing is a genuine notification from their system. Currently scareware accounts for half of all malware delivered in advertisements which has increased five times since last year.

Closing the pop-up or killing the browser will usually end the episode, but if you encounter this scam, be sure to check your PC with trusted security software or with Microsoft’s Security Essentials. If you are unlucky enough to have picked up a nasty virus, don't sweat it. Microsoft cleaned scareware from 7.8 million PCs in the second half of 2009, up 47 percent from the 5.3 million in the first half, the company said. My personal favorite for eliminating threats garnered from the web is called Malware Bytes.

4. Poisoned Search Results

There is an online phenomenon on the web called Search Engine Optimization (SEO) which is a technique that raises websites to the top of search engines based on keywords alone. Online criminals are also using this technique to manipulate search engines results into placing malicious sites toward the top of results pages for popular keywords. Typically these malicious sites embed popular keyword to try to distribute scareware to those unlucky enough to visit. Luckily search engines like Google and Microsoft’s Bing are doing their best to detect malicious sites and remove them entirely from their indexes. There are free tools available online such as McAfee’s SiteAdvisor and the Firefox add-on called Web of Trust which can warn you about potentially dangerous links.

5. Antisocial Media

Attackers also use e-mail, instant messaging, blog comments and social networks like Facebook and Twitter to trick people into visiting their websites or downloading malware. It's always better to be safe rather than sorry when dealing with suspicious messages or friend requests, especially in today's day and age. Phishers are trying to steal your login information so they can infiltrate other accounts, impersonate you to try to scam others out of money, and of course gather personal information about you and your friends.

One of the most rampant variants of these AntiSocial Media attacks have come from the Koobface worm and its cousins which have been taking aim at users of Facebook and other social sites for more than a year. The attack usually begins with the promise of a hilarious and never before seen video which prompts you to download a fake multimedia-player codec which is required to view the video. If you do happen to download this codec, your PC will become infected with malware and assuredly become part of a botnet which spews spam and malware across the four corners of the Internet.

Despite all these great tips for keeping you safe on the net, the most important aspect involved in keeping your computer safe from malware is to have a healthy dose of suspicion when browsing. Online criminals are using increasingly sophisticated methods to prey on the unsuspecting and your best defense on the web may just be your gut instinct.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Improve Your Day by Darkening Your Screen at Night

F.lux Screen Brightness AdjusterIf you're like me and find yourself staring into the burning chasm of your monitor during the day as well as nighttime, have I got a program for you. Its called F.lux and it automatically adjusts your computer’s monitor brightness according to the time of day and lighting conditions in the room. Best of all, its completely free.

Most screens look fine during the morning hours and day because they’re made to be BRIGHT like the outside sun. However, during the evenings at 10PM, or even 4AM for that matter, you definitely shouldn't be looking at anything that resembles the sun. Ever notice that when you come back to your monitor after dark, or even just as dusk is falling, they tend to blind your eyes and make you reach for the brightness controls? F.lux fixes all this by adjusting your computer's display to adapt to the time of day. It will become warm colored at night and during the day take on the color of sunlight. As someone who has battled with insomnia on more than one occasion, it's definitely nice to know I won't turn on my monitor only to have my retinas seared.

The basic principles behind the F.lux program involve adjusting your monitor based on color temperatures. The term color temperature is a way to numerically describe how much red or blue light is illuminating a room. Color temperature is measured in Kelvins and is used to describe every kind of light you use and buy. Warm colored light sources are described in lower degrees kelving while cool light is higher up the spectrum. A candle which gives off a red-orange light has a color temperature of approximately 1800K while a bright sunny day may be around 6000K. A cloudy day will cause the sunlight that penetrates to have a more blue color and may have a color temperature around 7000K. If you're wondering what the color temperature of your monitor is, consider that most LCD's are defaulted to 6500K while CRT's may have an even higher color temperature.

Keep in mind that this program is not designed for use during advanced color work such as graphical design but it will be perfectly fine for regular use. I personally don't have a problem at all with the color when I play video games at night. If you have a problem with your screen looking much too yellow at night, try adjusting the color temperature sliders under the settings tab. I personally have the Daytime setting cranked all the way up with my night temperature sitting at 4200K near the Flourescent setting. What I like best about F.lux is that once you set it up you will never have to think about it again. Its all automatic.

For more information about display technology visit A Monitor Blog

Monday, May 17, 2010

How to Calibrate your High Definition TV

High Definition TVYou may have just spent thousands of dollars on that brand new 52" HD TV but unless you calibrate it you may never even know what you're missing. Shopping for an HD TV right now is like stepping into a swirling miasma of contrast levels, back lighting, processing power, widgets, gray scale, ambient lighting, resolution, output format, I could go on. The point is that everything is advertised as HD ready which deludes you into thinking your TV has already been optimized when that couldn't be further from the truth. The problem lies with the manufacturers' default settings which usually pump up the color settings and contrast to make them stand out better under the thousands of watts of light shining down on you in the middle of Best Buy. Put simply your HD TV is almost guaranteed to be nowhere near the home viewing experience you could be getting.

A properly calibrated television could end up looking better than a factory defaulted TV of nearly twice the price. Blu-ray content especially is sensitive to calibration and you will be absolutely surprised at the differences. My friend had just bought a High Definition LCD TV Monitor and we decided to test out the waters by watching Pan's Labyrinth on Blu Ray. I thought the picture quality was superb and was congratulating him on purchasing such a sweet TV. That's when he decided to open up all the settings on his TV and he actually sat down to calibrate the TV while I watched. He asked my opinion on a few setting since he is partially colorblind but it was easy enough to get through. We tossed in The Dark Night on Blu Ray immediately after and my jaw dropped at how much better the picture looked. I was truly stunned at the image quality. I could count the hairs on Christian Bales five o clock shadow and was almost blinded when the picture would switch from dark scenes to brighter ones. I felt for the first time that I had seen what the Blu Ray technology could actually do and it sent chills down my spine.

So how exactly do you go about calibrating a High Definition TV? The process is quite simple and is often ignored in the manufacturers instruction manual. The first and most important step you should take when calibrating your TV is to mimic the ambient lighting in the room that you normally watch your movies in. For example, if you find yourself watching your TV mostly in the middle of the day open the curtains and let in some light. Otherwise, if you watch a lot of movies in the late evenings, try dimming the lights and closing the curtains.

Brightness or black level is one of the most important settings on your TV. Your goal when calibrating this setting is to try and lower the brightness right down until blacks look deep on all levels of darkness. If there is a loss in detail when viewing varying levels of dark you don't have your setting correct. When tweaking this setting its a good idea to find an image or movie with a great dynamic range. Something that displays both dark shadows with clean and bright scenes such as The Dark Night.

Once you are done with your black levels the next setting you will be moving onto will be your television's contrast settings which may also be called white level. Basically you want to raise the contrast until whites get as bright as possible while still being crisp and not blurred in any way. A poor contrast ratio will have a negative effect on the color quality which may cause your picture to look washed out or like there's a transparent black sheet draped over the TV. Adjusting contrast ratios can prove difficult as any changes you make will affect the brightness levels previously mentioned.

Next up is sharpness. Sharpness could more accurately be called "artificial edge enhancement" and generally only improves the aesthetics of lower-quality signals like standard cable and satellite programs. Increasing the sharpness may give you the illusion that you're getting more detail, but the end result is definitely not a more accurate picture. Too high of a sharpness setting will often creates halos around the edges of objects onscreen and create hard looking edges. Take into consideration that most movies already have this edge-enhancement filter applied during mastering so as a general rule you can leave sharpness very low or even at zero as sharpness is not needed for HD sources.

Color levels are perhaps the most difficult and subjective setting you will need to tweak on your TV as these color changes will affect your previously tweaked settings. The best thing to do with colour levels is essentially do it by eye. Fortunately, factory settings for color are usually close to where they should be. You want to avoid a picture where it looks like everyone is sunburned or some of the colors have been amplified to an extreme. Some of these color level settings are called tint, hue, and color temperature. Remember, you simply want to try and balance out the colors as best as you can without negatively affecting your previous adjustments. If you're used to watching TV with a high contrast and brightness setting you may find that your picture seems a bit dull. If so, try living with the new settings for a few days before changing them back. Your eyes may not have gotten used to a more naturally balanced picture and we as humans typically avoid change.

If you want to take much of the guesswork out of manually adjusting your TV's settings and get great results at the same time, you may consider purchasing a calibration DVD. These discs include test patterns and specifically created videos and scenes that make it easy to match your TV's settings to broadcasting standards. If you want to be 100% sure you're getting the best possible picture your TV can deliver, consider hiring a certified professional to calibrate your HDTV. These experts will be armed with specialized test equipment and an extended knowledge of the inside of your TV and more advanced settings which should definitely be left up to the experts.