Saturday, April 20, 2013

The World's Biggest Game of PONG hits the Philadelphia Skyline for Philly Tech Week 2013

Those who know me know that I love the concept of multiclassing.  I love when digital plays with real.  When nerdery exists with business.  When education holds hands with gaming.  When technology tangos with art.  And I have the good fortune of living in the Philadelphia area.  So let’s take those aforementioned topics and throw them all into one mixing bowl for a second.  That’s what I was able to experience Friday night celebrating the kickoff for Philly Tech Week.
And that celebration? Playing PONG. On the side of the Cira Centre. Which is a building over 400 feet tall. From about a mile out. For all the city to see.  Magical.
Philly Tech week is an annual celebration of technology and the arts through over 100 events, naturally taking place in the city of brotherly love.  As Technically Philly‘s Christopher Wink said at the event, Philly Tech Week is to show folks the amazing minds and the amazing work that’s being done in the Philadelphia area, and about the intersection of arts and technology to inspire the region.  This year to kick it off along those lines,  Dr. Frank Lee of Drexel University and his crew rigged the Cira Centre with hundreds of LED’s, each one mapped to its own IP address (pretty slick right?), and  coded a version of PONG that could communicate with each of those lights.  The controls were outside the Philadelphia Museum of Art, where the rest of the party was.  So from the museum steps famous for that Rocky training montage, denizens of our fair city could watch some classic gameplay on an 83,000 square foot makeshift screen.
Why PONG though?  In the words of Dr. Lee when he spoke to Polygon last month, ”Pong is part of our culture,” he said. “Pong lives in every game that came since then. If you get down the tree of the life of the video game, it will lead at the root to PongPong was the first successful commercial game.”  Makes a lot of sense given that the good doctor describes himself as a gamer, and he was also one of the two paddle combatants in the inaugural match.  He defeated Jerry Sweeney, CEO of the Brandywine Realty Trust, the company that owns the Cira Centre.  It was a clash of titans – Sweeney, the guy that owns the building, taking on Lee, the guy hacking it.
Dr. Lee pulled out the win in the 5 point match, but as mentioned by Christopher Wink, who emceed the whole event, with an asterisk next to it in the history books – see the video below to see what I’m talking about:

Outside of the main event, there were classic arcade machines set up as well as some live chuptunes.  The whole thing was threatened by weather, but in addition to Dr. Lee and Mr. Sweeney about 60 players were able to go to old school war in the hour and change the event was able to last.  Luckily for the couple hundred of other folks that were there to see the action, the rain held off for a good bit.  Unfortunately for me though, it started just in time to render me drenched by the time i finished my trek from the Art Museum to Suburban Station to catch my train home.
Dr. Lee talked about working with the Guinness folks about establishing the world record for the biggest video game ever.  Apparently something similar was done by Atari in Kansas City a while back, but that was only a 22 story building.  The Cira Centre is 29, so mathematically there shouldn’t be any issues getting the record confirmed.
It was an awesome time and a great way to kick off the events of the coming week.  Oh and by the way, in your face Kansas City.
With love, Philadelphia.

Friday, April 12, 2013

We May All Be Computer Criminals Soon: The CFAA and the Power to Destroy

Over the last couple of years there's been a lot of focus on legislation concerning internet privacy and regulation.  SOPA came and went.  CISPA was effectively (so we thought at the time) dead but is rearing its ugly head once again.  ACTA was killed last summer.  But all of those can have thousands of words dedicated to just them on their own.  Today we're going to be talking about the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, affectionately known as CFAA for short.


The goal of the CFAA (when it was born from from the twisting nether ironically in 1984) was to reduce unauthorized access to computer systems for government and financial institutions.  OK, fair enough.  But the number of amendments that were attached to it over the next couple of decades changed its tone.  In 1994 Congress turned it into a weapon for private litigants suing for civil damages, giving private business a means to sue employees for alleged information theft.  2001's Patriot Act amended it to allow searching records from a user's ISP.  Each amendment suffers the same kind of vague, broad and overreaching language that we've grown to know and cringe at just like other proposed internet regulation has.  A broad interpretation of the CFAA justified criminal charges for employees that violated a company's acceptable use policy or violating an internet terms of use policy.  Criminalized.  Thankfully that last one was changed again in 2011, to bring the focus of the law back to what it originally was - combating unauthorized access to information.  But it still had the power to destroy.

The case of Aaron Swartz

The most prominent case illustrating this was that of Aaron Swartz, a bright digital innovator and activist that helped develop RSS content syndication and the creation of the Creative Commons licenses.  He also was the founder of the online group Demand Progress, an activist group that was well known for their digital campaign against SOPA.  The case was around his access to information from JSTOR, a not-for-profit repository of scholarly and academic journals created in 1995 to help academic libraries and publishers provide access to their works without taking up physical shelf space.  Users that have JSTOR accounts through an academic institution have free and unfettered access to this repository.  Swartz's position as a research fellow at Harvard University granted him access to the JSTOR system.  According to the Department of Justice however, Swartz did so from a "protected computer" on MIT's campus, with the intention of stealing documents and sharing them sharing them over numerous file-sharing sites, leaving him open to prosecution with the full strength of the CFAA.  If he was convicted of the charges (wire fraud and computer fraud as violations of the CFAA) he could have faced up to 35 years in prison and fines up to $1 million.  Sadly, Swartz hanged himself in his Brooklyn apartment this past January.

There are tons more details to this case I'm glossing over, but you can read more about the whole thing at the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

Present Power and Proposed Changes

That's the power the CFAA has as it stands.  In the wake of Aaron Swartz's death, many politicians, including SOPA critics Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA) and Rep. Jared Polis (D-CO), raised questions about how the government handled the case, and Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-CA) proposed to reform the CFAA with Aaron's Law, to prevent what happened to Swartz to happen to other computer users.  This reform is extremely important in the internet age, because according to the bill, you don't have to be a hacker or know anything about hacking to be charged for unauthorized access.  In the words of Orin Kerr, a law professor at George Washington University,

"Breaching an agreement or ignoring your boss might be bad. But should it be a federal crime just because it involves a computer? If interpreted this way, the law gives computer owners the power to criminalize any computer use they don't like. Imagine the Republican Party setting up a public website and announcing that no Democrats can visit. Every Democrat who checked out the site could be a criminal for exceeding authorized access."

So reforming this bill would be in the best interests of the internet and all American internet users, right?  So why are new proposed amendments aimed at dealing more damage instead of fixing what's broken?  Looking at the new draft (which you can see here) just talking about violating the CFAA will carry the same punishment as actually completing the act itself, by adding the short phrase "for the completed offense."  There's also language that links CFAA violations to racketeering, putting every violator on the same level as a member of an criminal organization.  In addition to violating website's fine print being a criminal act, the proposed changes expand the scope of civil seizure and forfeiture by the federal government.  And one of the most frightening additions is a section on "exceeding authorized use,"  meaning that if I want to access information I legally have access for an "impermissible purpose" then I'm punishable.  I'm not saying that's a common thing, but it could be another arrow in a prosecutor's quiver.

Terms of Use Violations and... Seventeen Magazine?

Yes, that's right, Seventeen Magazine.  Upon hearing of the new proposed earlier this month, they immediately changed a very specific part of their terms of service.  Their terms of service used to read that you had to be at least 18 years of age to access the website, meaning that if you couldn't access Seventeen if you were... actually 17.  They have a readership of 4.5 million teenage readers, whose average age is 16 and a half.  As of April 3rd, that language has been removed.  Otherwise, under the new proposed CFAA changes, over 4 million teenagers could have been charged with computer crimes just for visiting the site, violating the user site agreement fine print.  Hearst Magazines realized that this was ridiculous, and thankfully chose not to turn an army of teenagers into felons.

It's important that people know what's going on with this kind of legislation - any laws that affect computer use affect all of us, and we as citizens should actively be making sure that our own day-to-day activity can't be potentially weaponized against us.  If you want to contact your representatives about the CFAA (or anything else for that matter) the EFF has a lookup tool you can use to know where to send your comments and letters.

This is far from the first and far from the last when it comes to skewed computer law.  Outside of recruiting more geeks in Congress, our voice is all we have.

Friday, April 5, 2013

Microsoft Creative Director Doesn't Deny Always-On Rumors, Tells us to #dealwithit

Remember when I told you kids about the rumor that the next iteration of the Xbox console would require an always-on connection?  Even after those rumors have spread like wildfire, drawing a collective “WTF guys?” from the gaming community, Microsoft is still unwilling to confirm or deny an always-on requirement to operate their next-gen Xbox, codenamed “Durango.”  In my opinion it is that same refusal that is keeping the rumor alive and drawing gamers’ ire.  It’s really simple fix – all we want is a straight answer.  Yes or no, that’s all it would take.

But instead of real answers from Microsoft to their customer base (that pay hundreds per console and upwards of $50 per title) through a statement or press release, what we got instead was arrogance, ignorance, and insult from Microsoft Studios’ Creative Director Adam Orth (@adam_orth).  Over Twitter.  After going on about how he doesn’t see the big deal about always-on devices and software, he added one choice hashtag to the proceedings:


That was his answer.   Classy, man.

After BioWare’s Manveer Heir (@manveerheir) cited the always-on issues that arose with Diablo III and SimCity, Orth quipped that “Electricity goes out too” and sarcastically followed up with “I will not buy a vacuum cleaner” and other assy things of the like.   His twitter feed has since been protected (uh ohhhhh I think the boss may be angryyyy), but of course a number of screencaps were taken around the web to let everyone know how it went down.  For someone who really loves always-on that much, I figured he would have known that stuff you put out on the internet can last forever.  Thanks to HuffPost Tech UK by the way for this lovely capture.

As far as the validity of the always-on rumors, it was Kotaku who finally furnished an answer for us.  Their sources say that the answer is not only “yes,” but that it will only take 3 minutes of being offline to not be able to play anymore.   So why not just tell us that in the first place?

I’m surprised that Orth, someone who’s been in the industry for a while (he’s spent time with SCEA and LucasArts), could make such a shortsighted comment after the very public fiascoes concerning Diablo III last year and SimCity just last month.  The comment shows an alarming amount of industry ignorance for someone in such an important position, and says to me that Microsoft is catering only to users that have stable always-on broadband connections, telling those who don’t to deal with it.  There are a number of areas in the United States that either don’t or have spotty service.  You guys ever use Skype internationally or to someone in the remote USA?  play World of Warcraft or any other MMO?  Then I’m sure you noticed that some players would lose connection and drop wayyyy more frequently than others.  If that’s the case, then your wiped raid is evidence of this fact.  For those users, a 3 minute timer would render this console unplayable.  And that’s just in the United States.  What about American military personnel that game during deployments to remote areas?  In remote areas they’re running on connections reliant on satellites in geosynchronous orbit, where some areas can only be reached by certain satellites, possibly giving a skewed signal on a flatter-than-optimal angle.  So there are definitely potential issues with that setup.

And what about international users?  A lot of those users may find similar problems.

Working in IT I get that Microsoft’s plan forward on their enterprise side is pushing everyone cloud-ward with SkyDrive and their 2013 line of Office.  Given that they’ve been talking for a while about a Microsoft “ecosystem” that would combine Microsoft OS’es with Xbox, their moves including this one don’t seem so shocking.  But aside from that, they need to understand that this business model going forward is not only going to hurt their users, but their own brand.  Sony has made no such assertion that the PlayStation 4 would have an always-on component, so this helps them too, potentially giving them the opportunity to take some ground and have a chuckle at the same time.   But we still don’t have a straight answer.  So it looks like we’re going to have wait until E3 to see any sort of confirmation from Microsoft.  Meaning they have until June to get it together with a unified front and message to users, without rogue employees going berserk on social media.

Let me be clear on my stance on this sort of business practice in case you don’t know already.  I am against always-on.  In my opinion it’s a form of DRM that is sharply anti-consumer, especially now that we have laptops that have the graphics card juice to play modern games.  Always-on means I can’t play Diablo III on a flight, or SimCity on a long train ride.  And dictating when and where we can play our games just isn’t right. We’ve been burned with it more than once.  But the problem is partially us.  Always-on seems to be the way the industry is going, and we tacitly support it by still buying the games knowing the potential issues going in.  At that point, they already have our money, so why should they care?  They’ll move on, and quickly.  And we’ll be left wondering what to do when they finally shut down those connection servers.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

nVidia at PAX East: Project Shield Hands-On

Back in January we saw Project Shield from nVidia making its debut at CES in Las Vegas.  It was shown off as a mobile gaming device that looked like an Xbox controller with a screen conveniently attached to it for gaming on the go.  There weren’t many details available at the time aside from touting Steam streaming, gaming from the Android market, and streaming games from PC’s running nVidia cards.  Outside of that there wasn’t much else available, but suffice it to say that I was intrigued and looking forward to getting my hands on it.

I was able to do just that at PAX East a short while ago, where the nVidia crew gave me a hands on tour of their still-in-development foray into mobile gaming.  While they were getting a unit ready for me to test drive we got down to the brass tacks of system requirements and capabilities.  The Shield is packing a quad-core Tegra 4 and GeForce graphics on a 5″ 720p multitouch HD display on the visual front, with Android Jelly Bean running the unit’s software guts.  A micro USB port and wi-fi run the connections for charging and streaming, and the unit is capable of playing any Android game that supports a controller, anything from nVidia’s TegraZone,  and anything streamed from a PC running at last a GeForce GTX 650 video card.  OK, basics gotten.  Now to sit down and see what this handheld could do.

We started the session with PC streaming, the part I was most looking forward to seeing.  There was a PC sitting next to me running the appropriate spec running Skyrim in HD.  I picked up the Shield and started moving around with the control sticks and could see the controls being sent to the PC at the same time as they were taking effect local on the handheld unit.  The graphics and textures looked great on the small screen and the control was smooth.  But above everything else, the most pleasantly surprising part was that the lag between PC and Shield the two was impressively negligible.  As it was explained to me, the Shield plugs in with nVidia’s GFE (GeForce Experience) and employs their Kepler hardware, which includes an H.264 encoder that helps reduce latency and lag time with low power consumption while streaming.  That’s why you need at least a GTX 650 to get it going.

Next I took at look at how it ran on the Android side with some Grand Theft Auto: Vice City.  The game felt good to play and the controls were very responsive.  There were a few graphical glitches though, where sometimes building edges would bend or ramps went through other structures.  It didn’t affect the gameplay, but it was definitely noticeable during gameplay.

Aside from that there were a few issues with navigation through the menus on the home screen getting between Android, TegraZone and PC stream, but the unit is still under development so I’m not going to hold that against them too much.  What I wanted to see was a success – and that was the PC streaming.
What I really liked about the Shield was how it opens up some options for you.  If you look at iOS or Android as a gaming platform you’re pretty much restricted to what’s available on the App Store and Google Play, assuming you already don’t have access to TegraZone with your Tegra-powered device.  Even units like the DS are limited to some extent.  The Shield’s real power is availability – on the go you can get stuff from Google Play and TegraZone, but once you get to your wireless network and your entire game library is now available to you, including what you have on Steam.  On other specifics, the folks at nVidia weren’t ready to comment on specs like internal memory and gave me a Q2 release date range.

All in, I’m curious to see what the release model can do.