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‘I am the Batman’: why VR is all the rAge

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Virtual reality came into its own at the weekend’s annual rAge gaming expo, helping to cement its role as South Africa’s premier digital event, writes ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK.

I am the Batman. That is probably the single biggest epiphany I have ever had while playing a computer game. No, it is not a claim to being a superhero, nor a brief delusion of grandeur. It was an experience while immersed in a virtual reality demonstration.

The game, Batman VR, created for the new PlayStation virtual reality headset, has not yet been released. However, one of its designers was in South Africa to demonstrate the beginning of the game at the rAge gaming expo this past weekend.

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The scenario has Bruce Wayne’s Butler, Alfred, handing him a key to the secret entrance to the batcave. When one dons the PlayStation VR headset, one sees the game from Wayne’s perspective. By the time “you” have descended into the batcave and donned Batman’s suit with its belt of tricks, the virtual you has become immersed not only in the game environment, but also in the persona of the main character.

That is both a sign of the brilliance of the game design and a pointer to what will make great VR in the future: not only being immersed in virtual worlds, but also in virtual characters. That, of course, will lead to many anguished words written and spoken about how people will lose their own identities when they play these games.

Tell that to the millions of children who are forced to surrender their identities when they become part of the sausage factory of our 19th century education system that stresses rote learning, conformity and industrial age jobs. At rAge, the kids of all ages were out in force to find the next big experience that would redefine their entertainment lives. But for some, it goes beyond mere entertainment.

The rAge event itself was redefined by three major trends. Virtual reality was the most obvious, with almost every major VR headset brand on display or in use to demonstrate new games. Oculus Rift, which provides the technology for the Samsung Gear VR, competed with the HTC Vive for presence, the former used by the likes of Eagle Flight and the latter by Blue Ocean VR to demonstrate their offerings.

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However, PlayStation VR was the standout VR presence at rAge, as Ster-Kinekor Entertainment set the scene for an early-2017 launch, likely to be one of the biggest gaming hardware events of the year. As the price of headsets comes down, VR will become an even bigger presence at the next editions of rAge.

Second, the event was also the biggest gathering ever in the South Africa for the ultimate expression of devotion to fictional characters: cosplay. Short for “costume play”, it sees hundreds of people spend hours, days and even weeks before the event creating costumes that are as faithful as possible to those of characters in games, movies and comics.

The third big trend was the arrival of eSports – or electronic sports – as a serious business. Telkom sponsored R1-million in prizes for competitors in a three-day contest between teams of gamers playing two wildly popular games, Dota (Defense of the Ancients) 2 and Counter Strike: Global Offensive (CS:GO).

The big winner, the Bravado Gaming squad, won R200 000 for taking first place in CS:GO and R90 000 for being runners up in Dota 2. It had separate teams competing in each, an indication of just how much strategic energy such teams put into gaming. Such teams are known as Multi Gaming Organisations, and eight of them took part in the two tournaments.

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The Dota 2 winner, White Rabbit Gaming, took home R200 000, while Carbon eSports won a total of R130 000 for taking second place in CS:GO and fourth place in Dota 2.

Telkom may be the biggest, but it is hardly the only game in town. Three years ago, the prize money at rAge amounted to about R10 000. Last year, it went to R60 000. This year, it has finally come into its own.

“You can’t even kit out your team with that kind of money,” says Kimberley Blake, marketing manager of Syntech, distributor of hard drives and peripherals for gaming, among other. “We came along two years ago and said, how can we assist the gaming community, for them to win real money. We started Crucial Cup, an online gaming LAN (networked computer) tournament twice a year. The pot started with R30 000. This year it’s R50 000, and we’ve rebranded it as Ballistics Masters SA.”

Syntech has a powerful role model in Micron, the company behind computer games Crucial and Ballistic. It sponsors one of biggest gaming teams in world, Ninjas in Pyjamas. In South Africa, it puts half a million rand a year behind tournaments and team sponsorships.

MSI, the world’s leading maker of gaming computers and a global eSports sponsor, is also a major supporter of rAge and backs local eSports team The Gathering. This year it built South Africa’s first permanent eSports studio, from where tournaments can be broadcast across the world.

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Not surprisingly, MSI has also caught the virtual reality bug: at rAge it announced the new VR One I/O, an all-in-one virtual reality kit with a backpack containing both computer and power source. The manufacturer predicts that VR will soon move beyond gaming, into design, architecture, and even space exploration.

Clearly, the kids looking for their next big thrill may well also be discovering the careers of the future. For now, however, it is all disguised as fun.

Arthur Goldstuck is founder of World Wide Worx and editor-in-chief of Gadget.co.za. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram on @art2gee

 

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Earth 2050: memory chips for kids, telepathy for adults

An astonishing set of predictions for the next 30 years includes a major challenge to the privacy of our thoughts.

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By 2050, most kids may be fitted with the latest memory boosting implants, and adults will have replaced mobile devices with direct connectivity through brain implants, powered by thought.

These are some of the more dramatic forecasts in Earth 2050, an award-winning, interactive multimedia project that accumulates predictions about social and technological developments for the upcoming 30 years. The aim is to identify global challenges for humanity and possible ways of solving these challenges. The website was launched in 2017 to mark Kaspersky Lab’s 20th birthday. It comprises a rich variety of predictions and future scenarios, covering a wide range of topics.

Recently a number of new contributions have been added to the site. Among them Lord Martin Rees, the UK’s Astronomer Royal, Professor at Cambridge University and former President of the Royal Society; investor and entrepreneur Steven Hoffman, Peter Tatchell, human rights campaigner, along withDmitry Galov, security researcher and Alexey Malanov, malware analyst at Kaspersky Lab.

The new visions for 2050 consider, among other things:

  • The replacement of mobile devices with direct connectivity through brain implants, powered by thought – able to upload skills and knowledge in return – and the impact of this on individual consciousness and privacy of thought.
  • The ability to transform all life at the genetic level through gene editing.
  • The potential impact of mistakes made by advanced machine-learning systems/AI.
  • The demise of current political systems and the rise of ‘citizen governments’, where ordinary people are co-opted to approve legislation.
  • The end of the techno-industrial age as the world runs out of fossil fuels, leading to economic and environmental devastation.
  • The end of industrial-scale meat production, as most people become vegan and meat is cultured from biopsies taken from living, outdoor reared livestock.

The hypothetical prediction for 2050 from Dmitry Galov, security researcher at Kaspersky Lab is as follows: “By 2050, our knowledge of how the brain works, and our ability to enhance or repair it is so advanced that being able to remember everything and learn new things at an outrageous speed has become commonplace. Most kids are fitted with the latest memory boosting implants to support their learning and this makes education easier than it has ever been. 

“Brain damage as a result of head injury is easily repaired; memory loss is no longer a medical condition, and people suffering from mental illnesses, such as depression, are quickly cured.  The technologies that underpin this have existed in some form since the late 2010s. Memory implants are in fact a natural progression from the connected deep brain stimulation implants of 2018.

“But every technology has another side – a dark side. In 2050, the medical, social and economic impact of memory boosting implants are significant, but they are also vulnerable to exploitation and cyber-abuse. New threats that have appeared in the last decade include the mass manipulation of groups through implanted or erased memories of political events or conflicts, and even the creation of ‘human botnets’. 

“These botnets connect people’s brains into a network of agents controlled and operated by cybercriminals, without the knowledge of the victims themselves.  Repurposed cyberthreats from previous decades are targeting the memories of world leaders for cyber-espionage, as well as those of celebrities, ordinary people and businesses with the aim of memory theft, deletion of or ‘locking’ of memories (for example, in return for a ransom).  

“This landscape is only possible because, in the late 2010s when the technologies began to evolve, the potential future security vulnerabilities were not considered a priority, and the various players: healthcare, security, policy makers and more, didn’t come together to understand and address future risks.”

For more information and the full suite of inspirational and thought-provoking predictions, visit Earth 2050.

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How load-shedding is killing our cellphone signals

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Extensive load-shedding, combined with the theft of cell tower backup batteries and copper wire, is placing a massive strain on mobile network providers.

MTN says the majority of MTN’S sites have been equipped with battery backup systems to ensure there is enough power on site to run the system for several hours when local power goes out and the mains go down. 

“With power outages on the rise, these back-up systems become imperative to keeping South Africa connected and MTN has invested heavily in generators and backup batteries to maintain communication for customers, despite the lack of electrical power,” the operator said in a statement today.

However, according to Jacqui O’Sullivan, Executive: Corporate Affairs, at MTN SA, “The high frequency of the cycles of load shedding have meant batteries were unable to fully recharge. They generally have a capacity of six to 12 hours, depending on the site category, and require 12 to 18 hours to recharge.”

An additional challenge is that criminals and criminal syndicates are placing networks across the country at risk. Batteries, which can cost R28 000 per battery and upwards, are sought after on black markets – especially in neighbouring countries. 

“Although MTN has improved security and is making strides in limiting instances of theft and vandalism with the assistance of the police, the increase in power outages has made this issue even more pressing,” says O’Sullivan.

Ernest Paul, General Manager: Network Operations at SA’s leading network provider MTN, says the brazen theft of batteries is an industry-wide problem and will require a broader initiative driven by communities, the private sector, police and prosecutors to bring it to a halt.

“Apart from the cost of replacing the stolen batteries and upgrading the broken infrastructure, communities suffer as the network degrades without the back-up power. This is due to the fact that any coverage gaps need to be filled. The situation is even more dire with the rolling power cuts expected due to Eskom load shedding.”

Loss of services and network quality can range from a 2-5km radius to 15km on some sites and affect 5,000 to 20,000 people. On hub sites, network coverage to entire suburbs and regions can be lost.

Click here to read more about efforts to combat copper theft.

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