Microsoft is making major improvements to its Xbox Live service – including a tie-up with NBC Universal to boost its movie offerings and a raft of new games announcements. The Xbox 360 is battling hard against rival PlayStation 3 in the console market, and after the success of Xbox Live's movie service in the US, the UK will not get a more extensive service of its own. The deal with NBC Universal International Television Distribution means that some of the world's biggest movies will be available to download – many in HD, with the studio joining Warner Bros and Paramount on the Xbox ticket. Microsoft also took the opportunity to talk up its extensive downloadable content including new material for some of the biggest releases of the last year, including GTA IV, and mention the forthcoming MMO quiz 1 vs 100. Commenting on the news, UK & Ireland Head of Xbox, Neil Thompson said: "We are delighted to announce what are perhaps our most exciting content developments to date. "Having an agreement with NBC Universal not only gives our customers even more choice when they use Xbox LIVE but really seals our position as a major player in the mainstream home entertainment space. "Of course, we always want to ensure our core audience have the best possible gaming experiences too, and with the range of new extra content now available they can enjoy some of the biggest blockbuster and social games for longer than ever before. "This also applies to '1 vs. 100', which, whilst still in its infancy, signals the next chapter in the Xbox story which is set to take home entertainment to a whole new level by putting the consumer in the driving seat of their own TV show. Watch this space." ( www.techradar.com )
Researchers believe interactive games such as World of Warcraft and Second Life could be adapted so that children learn skills from them that could be transferred to real life. They believe that the "immersive" aspect of the games in which the player suspends his belief means that the brain is particularly engaged and can absorb complex issues. The games real life feel also means that students could effectively carry out "work experience" on the computer learning techniques and skills they can apply back in reality. Researchers believe that the games, which they say are more active than passive traditional learning, could be most useful for science based subjects with students able to carry out imaginary experiments and improve their ability to "learn to learn". "Compared with a similar, paper-based curriculum that included laboratory experiences, students overall were more engaged in the immersive interface and learned as much or more," said Professor Chris Dede, an academic in Learning technologies at Harvard University in the journal Science. Games such as Whyville and the ecology game River City have already been developed specifically to teach children and students but scientists believe established popular video games could be adapted so that players could be "dosed" with knowledge.
Much like "flight simulators" they are so "real" that many life skills can be learned from them. Early tests of these learning games have shown unusual levels of student engagement. Dr Merrilea Mayo, director of Future Learning systems at the Kaufman Foundation, said the games can also help close the gap between under and over-achieving children. "Unlike lectures, games can be adapted to the pace of the user," she said "Games also simultaneously present information in multiple visual and auditory modes, which capitalises on different learning styles.
"Although the field is still in its embryonic stages, game-based learning has the potential to deliver science and maths education to millions of users simultaneously. "Unlike other mass-media experiments in education (e.g., TV), games are a highly interactive." The new research is likely to add to the debate about the pros and cons of video games. Last year the culture minister Margaret Hodge called for a film-style classifications for games such as World of Warcraft which is said to have 10 million users worldwide. There have also been concerns that the games are addictive and that children's education and lives are being disrupted by them.
( www.telegraph.co.uk )
The latest academic research has found that games such as Half Life and Doom could actually be used to train people in fire safety, evacuation procedures and even save lives. Missing a link? Let us explain. By using the engines from games such as these, which involve looking at a scenario from a first-person perspective, the team at the university was able to adapt the environment into a 3D model of a real world building. In just three weeks a single developer was able to programme three fire evacuation procedures complete with smoke and fire which the Durham experts say is significantly quicker and more cost effective than beginning from scratch. The scientists found three main advantages of using this technology. That it can be used to identify problems with the layout of the building, that it can help familiarise people with evacuation procedures and that it can teach good fire safety. Many dangerous situations occur in a fire because people don't know the bits of the building they don't use on a daily basis, like the fire exits and stairwells, well enough and therefore panic due to the unfamiliarity with procedure.
As opposed to starting from scratch this method takes a huge wedge of time off building a virtual reality model. The games are also tested extensively before use in both usability and performance also meaning less work for the team. According to the boffins the code within these games also enables easy programming of features such as wind, smoke, fire and water. Lead author Dr Shamus Smith from Durham University's Computer Science department said, "Although virtual environment toolkits are available, they usually only provide a subset of the tools needed to build complete virtual worlds." Dr Smith explains further that in order to include features such as fire and water the programmer usually requires additional programming skills and a substantial time investment on the part of the developer. "By using readily available computer games, these features can be very easily simulated and are obviously vital in creating a virtual fire evacuation scenario".
Steve Wharton, of Durham and Darlington Fire and Rescue Service agreed that, "Using virtual models such as this one is an excellent way to raise fire safety awareness and test the effectiveness of a building's design. Virtual models also provide an effective way to train fire-fighters in a realistic, yet safe, environment." Further to the theoretic usefulness of this simulation, the team tested it on real people, showing them the difference between the usual simulation and the computer game-based one, those tested agreed unamimously that the latter was the most helpful and realistic, and that they really enjoyed shooting the fire demons in the ladies' loo on level six. ( www.atomicmpc.com.au )
Codes used to create virtual worlds for "shoot 'em up" games such as Doom 3 and Half Life 2 could be modified to build 3D fire safety simulators, according to research by Durham University. The games' sophisticated software could be converted to recreate real buildings, then modified to create a number of emergency scenarios, much more easily and cheaply than traditional virtual reality programmes. The study, published today in the Fire Safety Journal, found that games in which the player saw the environment from the first person perspective and normally involved the player using weapons to fight a number of enemies, had the greatest capability to be converted. The scientists said the simulations could identify problems with the layout of a building, help familiarise people with evacuation routines and teach people good practice in fire safety. Lead author Dr Shamus Smith from Durham University's Computer Science department said: "Although virtual environment toolkits are available, they usually only provide a subset of the tools needed to build complete virtual worlds. Although you can create fire and smoke for example, it is not very straightforward.
"In order to include these features using toolkits, it often requires additional programming skills and a substantial time investment on the part of the developer. "By using readily available computer games, these features can be very easily simulated and are obviously vital in creating a virtual fire evacuation scenario." Steve Wharton, deputy community safety manager at County Durham and Darlington Fire and Rescue Service, said: "Using virtual models such as this one is an excellent way to raise fire safety awareness and test the effectiveness of a building's design. "Virtual models also provide an effective way to train firefighters in a realistic, yet safe, environment." ( www.telegraph.co.uk )
Financial worries are forcing us all to tighten our belts, and encouraging a sort of “make do and mend” culture across the country. Sales of sewing machines are on the up, says Argos, as people take to customising their own clothes rather than splashing out on new threads; bread-making machines, too, are enjoying a surge in popularity, says Comet, with people opting to bake their own loaves to save dough. Despite these straitened times, the video-games industry is enjoying record sales, even as spending on other entertainment declines. According to the latest figures, more video games were bought last year than DVDs. Sales were up 20 per cent, raking in $32 billion (£22 billion), while sales of films on DVD and Blu-ray, by contrast, dropped by 6 per cent, earning just $29 billion worldwide. It seems that consumers are quickly warming to the idea of video games not only as a good-value form of entertainment, but as something that can be enjoyed by all ages and abilities, together, as a social activity.
Consoles such as the Nintendo Wii, with its clever motion-sensitive controllers, and games such as Rock Star and Guitar Hero, are proving hugely attractive to consumers who may never previously have considered giving gaming a go. Video-games parties are all the rage. Guests are invited to bring a dish and a bottle of wine and the evening is spent in a convivial if competitive atmosphere as people duel against one another on SingStar, a karaoke game, or Guitar Hero, where players must strum a plastic guitar plugged into the games console in time with the on-screen instructions. “Consumers are staying in and spending more money on being entertained at home,” says Aaron Greenberg, head of interactive entertainment product management at Microsoft, which makes the Xbox 360 games console. “The credit crunch is a fact for folks in the US and Europe, so people are being much more cautious.” And it’s women who are largely driving the video-games market, buying 21 per cent more games last year than they did in 2007, according to researchers at TNS. “The Nintendo DS and the Wii have bought a demographic into the market that is not normally associated with gaming,” says Chris Barnes, an account manager with TNS.
“The birth of casual gaming has made gaming more widely acceptable, and console and games publishers are falling over themselves to produce products that don’t target the traditional gamer. Wii Fit and Guitar Hero have proven to be a massive success.” The price of consoles – with a Nintendo Wii costing as little as £179, and an Xbox 360 even less – is seen as crucial to redefining video gaming as an entertainment proposition with mass appeal. Add to that the almost endless replay value of many games, as well as the inherent fun factor of competing with friends and family in singing contests and virtual tennis, and it’s easy to see why video gaming is the perfect antidote to the credit crunch. The nation’s new-found passion is having a positive knock-on effect in other areas. There are numerous studies showing that the rapid-fire imagery in video games is helping us to process everyday images and information with increasing speed and accuracy, and in some cases improves hand-to-eye co-ordination to such an extent that trainee surgeons are using video games to hone their fine motor skills. “Our environment, because of technology, is changing, and therefore the abilities we need in order to navigate these highly information-laden environments are changing,” says Susana Urbina, a professor of psychology at the University of North Florida.
Moreover, rhythm-action video games such as Rock Band and Guitar Hero are encouraging children to pick up musical instruments. About 2.5 million British youngsters have progressed to real music-making after playing console games, according to Youth Music, the UK’s largest music charity. And it’s not just the video-games industry that’s enjoying a boom. Sales of “netbooks” – cheap, ultra-portable laptops that have minimal memory and storage, but are small enough to carry everywhere and capable of connecting to the web – are on the up. Netbooks, such as the Asus Eee PC and Acer Aspire One, now account for 10 per cent of all computers sold in Europe, say analysts at IDC. Many netbooks – some costing less than £200 – also bring a new kind of operating system to consumers. Lots of them run a version of the open-source Linux platform, a competitor to Microsoft’s Windows and Apple’s OS X, which is easy to use and economical to run. It seems that is carrying over into people’s regular computer usage too, with consumers seemingly more willing to try out free software, such as Open Office and Google Docs, which are alternatives to Microsoft Office. These programs not only reduce costs, but in many cases are more useful, because documents are stored on the internet rather than on a single-computer hard drive, so they can be accessed from any machine. Tech-savvy Britons are also livening up the long, cash-strapped winter nights by turning to catch-up TV services on the web. It is, after all, much cheaper to watch the first series of Little Dorrit for free on the BBC’s iPlayer service than splash out on cinema tickets. Traffic to the iPlayer service has surged in recent months, with more than 41 million TV show requests from iPlayer last December alone. Channel 4 offers a similar service with 4OD, as does ITV, while Sky’s Sky Player provides access to its recently screened films and television shows. ( www.telegraph.co.uk )