Category Archives: video games

‘Heavy Rain’: 2009 may be year when AI looks real

“Heavy Rain” is getting closer. This computer video game, scheduled for release in 2009, is developed for PlayStation 3 by French studio Quantic Dream and moves the technology of 3-D human rendering forward to include flowing hair, tears, wrinkles, and the type of twitching, blinking, pupil-dilating eyes only seen in people in reality.

If it works as planned, the game may be the first to overcome The Uncanny Effect — that slightly creepy feeling you get watching modern animation that still isn’t quite right, you know, Tom Hanks as the dead-eyed conductor in 2004’s The Polar Express. This unnerving effect was conceived by German psychologist Ernst Jentsch in 1906: artificial bodies, he said, that approach realism look even worse, like eerie dolls at Grandma’s house that are almost-but-not alive and therefore seem possessed.

Heavy Rain also poses some questions:

Artificial intelligence: When artificial human faces become totally believable, will we perceive artificial intelligence even if it does not yet exist? It’s one thing to set up computer simulations that act like intelligent responses; but if the face presenting it seems human, the mind behind it may suddenly seem real, too.

Dual standards for morality: What happens to the morals of society when our avatars, or self-drawn images that we present online, look real but still take actions that real society would condemn? It’s one thing to play an online video game where you shoot cartoon characters; when the game becomes total immersion in reality, are we then committing real murder?

A second economy in which all rules, including advertising, change: Virtual worlds have come and gone, but in each advertisers have failed to make an entrance (See: Second Life). When the virtual becomes so beautiful that it transcends our own world, the temptation to move our minds there will be huge. The early forays into virtual communication (online war games, social media communications) show that advertising from the “real world” is often unwelcome.

Put them together, and the appearance of reality in new worlds may make fiction seem real, causing seismic shifts in the morality of what we believe, the values in how we act, and the tools we use to build or exchange wealth. It all goes on sale in a few months on your Sony PS3.

Obama now advertising on Xbox 360


Advertising on video games is officially here. Barack Obama is placing ads on Xbox 360 and Sony PlayStation racing games that appear in realistic environments such as billboards over the virtual roadways. EA spokeswoman Holly Rockwood reports the ads were sold by Massive, a gaming agency owned by Microsoft, and that both Obama and John McCain camps were approached but only Barack bit.

Game counsels such as the Xbox are tied into the web and allow some targeting innovations, such as using the gamers’ geographic location to post messages that could potentially say “go down the street to pick up your voter registration forms.” At first glance this skews toward youth … but consider that the average age of videogamers is now 33 and John McCain may be missing an opportunity.

Via Brier Dudley.

Now playing: Google on your video game


A year ago we noted the average age of video game users has been climbing — up from 18 in 1990 to 33 in 2007. Makes sense, since people tend to take their media habits with them as they age.

Now Google is joining Yahoo in tossing ads at videogamers. Today Google announced Adsense for Games, which will show short videos before or after gamers complete various gaming levels.

We so look forward to testing this. On one hand, third-party interception can fail miserably if consumers are not paying attention (witness the dismal response rates of banner ads on many social media sites). On the other hand, gamers are ravenously attentive and surely hungry for pizza. Domino’s, give us a call.

Johnny Lee and the viral petri dish

It’s amazing to think that one researcher, working alone in a lab, can have an idea and reach millions of people in just a few weeks. The brilliant Johnny Lee did this with his Wii video game remote hacks, in which he creates a stunning interactive whiteboard and 3-D system for less than the cost of two movie tickets and a large popcorn. Not only is Johnny brilliant, but he posts his software for free on his web site for the world to download.

It’s a nice two-step case study in viral marketing, where the idea is extraordinarily catchy (“researcher creates revolution in video games with parts from RadioShack”) and the distribution network amplifies it (“YouTube users go nuts, viewing original video 4.5 million times”). Social media has creating a toasty-warm petri dish for viral communications.

It’s also a nice touch of humility to see Johnny trembling a bit on the TED conference stage, perhaps awestruck at the fandom he has created so fast with a little help from YouTube. The guy just gave the 2.7 million teachers needed in the United States a presentation tool they never could have afforded before. Johnny, it is we who should be trembling to accept such grace from you.

Speech tip via Boing.

(Correction: It has come to the editors’ attention that petri dishes are used primarily for growing bacteria, which are very small cellular creatures, but not as small as viruses, which are sub-microscopic agents that grow and reproduce inside host cells. Thus the metaphor of this headline, “viral petri dish,” makes no sense biologically, and may not be a metaphor at all but instead an aphorism, since it hints at a concise statement of scientific principle, except that the statement is false. We sincerely regret the false aphoristic metaphoric viral petri dish error.)

Clean sheet it, and start with crayons

Here’s a nice piece of whimsy from Slate. Crayon Physics Deluxe is a simple video game by Petri Purho of Helsinki, Finland, that pushes back on the hyper-realism of Gears of War II or Quantic’s artificial intelligence-laden Heavy Rain. You simply draw objects that become rooted in gravity, allowing a ball to roll or be pushed toward a star. The game created a sensation at the 2008 Game Developers Conference in February.

Why all the fuss? Purho did something new, totally out of the box. A fresh idea beats sophisticated graphics any time. Chris Baker at Slate commented the game looks as if it were designed by a third grader. Purho wrote back, I take that as a compliment.

More at Purho’s site here.

Heavy Rain: An uncanny step toward AI

Nice piece in Salon on the surreal quest for the perfect game face. Way back in 1906, German psychologist Ernst Jentsch noticed that slight gaps in realism freak people out, which he termed the Uncanny Effect. This is why old cartoons with Snow White seem fine, but when we watch The Polar Express, the almost-but-not-there animation of Tom Hanks looks disturbing. The closer imitation gets to reality, the scarier it seems.

That’s why the little wax dolls in old ladies’ houses look creeeeepy, folks.

CGI filmmakers and video game designers are rushing to get human faces just so. Now French game studio Quantic Dream has refocused game realism away from swaying palm trees and racing cars to the expressions of people. The image above is a recruiting video for Quantic, trying to lure fresh designers to crack the code on humanity. Quantic will soon release a new game for PlayStation 3 called Heavy Rain, which will include swarms of people wiggling eyebrows like the lass above. The eyes are important because they are the perceived window to the soul, and a key problem with past demos was the eyes looked dead, like this.

If Quantic succeeds it will be a breathtaking move … because once computers can simulate human expression, filling in the AI content will be just behind.

MTV’s Rock Band game: The new music superstore


Word is the MTV video game Rock Band sold 2.5 million songs to users, who downloaded them at 2 bucks a pop. Now video games have become a valuable new content distribution channel. What may be most interesting is the unique modality of play — yes, you can be a hardcore rock star! — has fueled sales for Metallica, Foreigner, and Queens of the Stone Age, creaky rockers previously buried in the back of secondhand vinyl stores.

That’s right, kids. Your dad is hogging the console.

(Correction: Queens of the Stone Age formed in 1997. They are not creaky rockers in the back of secondhand vinyl stores; instead, they produce skull-crushing stoner rock with the objective of sex bleeding into the music. Sorry for the error.)

Saturday night, teens are rocking — and it ain’t to radio


The Pew Internet & American Life Project points to a stormy future for broadcast ratings, buried in a new report on how American families use the Internet. Pew surveyed 935 teens and their parents to ask questions such as whether parents monitor Internet content (yes) and do parents think the Internet has been a bad influence on kids (surprisingly, parents are ambivalent).

The bad news for broadcasters came on a little chart on page 3, titled “Gadget Ownership within Households.” Teens and their parents tend to have the same number of gadgets, probably since discretionary income and interest in technology may be common under one roof. But parents and teens have different types of gadgets. All have heavy penetration of PCs and laptops, but parents tend to use cell phones more, while 51% of youths age 12 to 17 now have an MP3 player.

51% — more than half — of teens have iPod equivalents! Let’s pause and digest that. (A) That’s twice the rate as parents, suggesting the gadget interest is a major shift from the older generation to the younger. (B) Add it up with the other devices that teens use — 72% own a desktop computer, 63% own a cell phone, 25% a laptop, and 8% a PDA — and you see a world where today’s youth are immersed in media devices that are not TV or radio. (C) 88% of teens in total say they use this technology to “make my life easier,” and this list does not include TV or radio.

You can see where this is going. These kids will grow up, and as they take today’s media habits with them, ad dollars will be shifted out of broadcast (whose ratings are falling) and into mobile media (the future for the Millennial Generation). We’ve seen a similar shift in video games in the past two decades. Back in 1990, the average age of a video gamer was 18 — and today, 17 years later, that average age has increased 15 years to 33. The adults now trading Linden Dollars on Second Life started out playing The Hunt for Red October when George Sr. was in office.

Unfortunately for radio, today’s teens have found new devices to get their kicks, and those include Wi-Fi internet and MP3 downloads, not airwaves. Advertisers are going to chase this market as tomorrow’s adults change the dial.

Out of the video arcade and into upper-household income


Funny thing about kids–they tend to grow up fast and take their media consumption habits with them. Mediaweek makes an interesting point that back in 1990, the average age of a video game fanatic was 18–and today, the average is now 33. Think about that. In the past 17 years, the typical gamer age has climbed 15 years — meaning the bell curve of demand is aging almost as fast as real people.

Perhaps one way to predict future demand in any demo is simply to see what the next younger demo is doing, and then roll those habits up the age hill. What can you expect? Less demand for radio (since youngsters now consume their music via MP3). More demand for video games, and the cross-pollination of major motion picture releases with gaming titles. The untethering of the internet from landlines and plastic PCs to glass-and-aluminum portable cell phones. A move beyond media fragmentation to media empowerization, in which every individual with an iMobilekeypadGPStrackingvideocameradevice can create their media bubble–and share it with their circle of friends.

Now that the definition of Web 2.0 has been settled as the confluence of web-based software and social networks, Web 3.0 will be the movement of the web away from computers to the surrounding ambiance of everything connected with a chip in it–your phone, your car, your wallet, your dog, your garage door, and your sneakers. The web won’t be a desk-bound browser; it will be more like mobile electricity. The blog underworld is still debating it, but we see this future simply as a new age of media bubbles. I can broadcast to you, within our own little network, attaching private information about any content or device in my life–and good luck to the advertiser or marketer trying to saddle up to that private conversation. Information wants to be free–but now, you and I will control our information.

For proof of the coming change, look to the new demo for the G4 gaming cable TV network. The average viewer is just over 30 with a household income of $60,000. One thing is for certain: your media plan from 2007 is not going to work well in 2017 when these hipsters reach their 40s.