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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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AppDate: Prepare for space

In this week’s AppDate, SEAN BACHER highlights Space Nation Navigator, Hitman Sniper, Snake Mask, Memrise, WhatsApp Web, and Carrot Weather.

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Space Nation Navigator

Space Nation Navigator is a bit of a strange app. It is part game, part exercise and part educational. On the game side, users have to navigate the Mars Rover, put the International Space Station back into orbit or move their Martians to safety before a sand storm hits Mars. When it comes to exercise, Space Nation Navigator provides users with a range of exercises and Yoga videos to prepare them for space travel and working in an anti-gravity environment. The education aspect teaches users about the planets, and star constellations, and then offers quizzes on what has been taught.

Platform: Android and iOS

Cost: A free download.

Stockists: Visit the store linked to your device.

 

Memrise

Memrise takes a new approach to help people learn new languages. Instead of providing a user with random phrases and words to memorise, the app connects you with a person already fluent in the language you want to learn. In turn, the person you are speaking to wants to learn the language in which you are fluent. Once your profile is filled out and languages selected, it connects you with people around the world who are interested in your language, and then allows you to chat with them in real-time. Memrise also lets one learn new languages through games, chatbots and grammarbots that help with spelling, tenses and pronunciations.

Platform: Android and iOS

Cost: A free download.

Stockists: Visit the store linked to your device.

 

Hitman Sniper

Hitman Sniper is loosely based on the Agent 47 movie released a few years ago. The game offers players the ability to hone their shooting skills through a range of training courses and, once they think they are ready, they can start taking out the bad guys. Things start off easy enough, but they get more and more difficult as one progresses through the 150 missions on offer. One will also have to upgrade various gun components, like scopes, magazine capacities and silencers, to make the missions a little easier. Hitman Sniper lets users buy 16 to tackle each of the missions – either with real money or via the points accumulated by completing missions. Money and points can also be used to upgrade firearms.

Platform: Android and iOS

Cost: R7 – with a range of in-app purchases.

Stockists: Visit the store linked to your device.

 

Snake Mask

The iconic Snake game that was preinstalled on most older Nokia phones has had a complete make-over. It now uses Facebook’s AR technology, meaning that you have to navigate the snake around obstacles in your home or office, all the while collecting coins and stars that change the snake’s speed and length. Unfortunately, Snake Mask is only available on Nokia’s new range of smartphones. However, it should not take long before it slithers onto other devices.

 

Platform: New Nokia smartphones running Android.

Cost: Free to use through the Facebook app installed on the device.

Stockists: Available through the Facebook app.

 

WhatsApp Web

Although this is by no means a new app, it is an extremely useful one, and one that not many people know about. Tapping out WhatsApps on your phone is easy enough, but thanks to WhatsApp Web it can be even easier. Open the WhatApp Web page under WhatsApp and you will see a QR code. Scan this code through WhatsApp on your mobile and you will be shown a replica of what you would normally see on your phone. You can then type and reply to messages using your computer instead of having to stop everything and unlock your phone every time a message comes through. WhatsApp Web is great if you share your computer with other people as it automatically disconnects when the browser is closed. However WhatsApp also offers an app that when installed will stay connected to your phone unless you manually remove it.

 

Platform: Any up-to-date Internet browser

Cost: Free to use and install

Stockists: Visit www.WhatsApp.com

 

Carrot Weather

There are thousands of weather apps on the Internet these days and all of them do the same thing – inform you of the weather in your area. However, Carrot Weather has taken what is just another app and turned it into something fun. By fun, I mean sarcastic, rude and completely politically incorrect. A user starts off by selecting religious and political views. It then asks about personality, ranging from friendly to homicidal to overkill – which includes profanity. So, for instance, instead of waking up to to the standard partly cloudy forecast, Carrot Weather will display something like: “It’s only partly sunny, the sun is a total effing failure.” It also has a range of insults that it throws at you whenever you open the app – some of them downright insulting, so it is definitely not for those who are easily offended. The app’s user interface is very simple, displaying a week’s daily forecast and hourly forecasts for the day selected.

Platform: Android and iOS

Cost: Free to download but with adverts. The premium, advert free version costs R12 per month.

Stockists: Visit the store linked to your device.

* Sean Bacher is editor of Gadget.co.za. Follow him on Twitter on @SeanBacher

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SA Start-up reinvents PABX

For any South African business, the idea of setting up or changing a telephonic switchboard system is the stuff of nightmares. Dealing with expensive hardware and hearing things like QSIG and VOIP is not what you’d call exciting.But now there is an app.

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Enter BuzzBox (www.buzzboxcloud.co.za), a web-based telephone switchboard that is aimed at small and medium sized businesses wanting to take the hassle and cost out of the company switchboard. Whether you are a small one-man operation or a larger organisation with staff working remotely, BuzzBox is the best switchboard solution.

What sets BuzzBox apart from anything else on the market is its easy-to-use dashboard. It puts you in control of everything from picking your phone number to setting up voice prompts and managing your business-hours schedule.

BuzzBox was developed when the startup behind it, Jini-Guru, needed such a service for its own use across multiple continents. “When we started Jini-Guru we could not find a seamless online process that would allow us to set up a full web-based switchboard, so we decided to build one for ourselves,” says Mike Smits, Director at Jini-Guru.

He says a lot of startups today are tech savvy and know how to use apps and the services that go with it. “It’s the uberisation of services and its driving demand for instant service activation.”

BuzzBox works as an app on both iOS and Android but users wanting a desk phone option can choose from a variety of devices on offer or use their existing VOIP phones.

Setting up a BuzzBox account takes 5 minutes. During registration your FICA documents are uploaded [ID and proof or residence] and you get to pick your phone number before the account is created. Companies that want to keep an existing number can do so too.

The real magic happens when you log on to the BuzzBox Dashboard. The main screen displays a summary of statistics for your account while the left-hand menu provides you quick access to various configuration settings and reports.

Setting up new extensions or external numbers is done with a few clicks and you can even set up various departments which is a great way to route a call to various people in a department, like sales or support.

The intuitive user interface also makes it easy to set up hold-music and voice prompts. You can add voice prompts by recording them straight to your phone, just make sure you use a clear voice with quiet surroundings for the best customer experience.

One of the main features of BuzzBox is its call recording feature that allows an organisation to record calls for legislative purposes, such as a lawyer, or for customer service purposes such as support. Recordings are stored securely online, and you have the ability to download recordings for playback. Companies can opt-in for this service and it’s free to use. Recordings are stored online and are fully encrypted so only you can listen to, or download them. Storage costs R1 for every 1000 minutes of stored recordings.

Other features include call forwarding and scheduling. The latter allows you to set office hours for your organisation which will divert calls to an after-hours messaging service. You also have the option to enable routing to an employee who is on call after hours.

BuzzBox also has a reseller program for companies wanting to offer this as a switchboard solution to their existing customers.

The costs for this service is R89 p/m for the first phone number which includes your first extension for free. Thereafter you’ll pay R89p/m per extension. Calls between extensions are free but you pay per second for all outgoing phone calls. More info on pricing can be found here: https://buzzboxcloud.co.za/pricing/

BuzzBox is offering a Launch promotion where they are offering the first line and extension free for 12 months. Only pay for calls. Use promo code “feoifyaa” during sign-up to apply your discount.

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