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VR (almost) ready for the big time

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Virtual reality games arcades are springing up around South Africa, and the technology behind it is racing to keep up, writes ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK.

On the first floor of the hip new Workshop17 collaborative workspace at Cape Town’s V&A Waterfront, a motley collection of makeshift curtains and partitions make for a stark contrast to the stand-up banners that describe their purpose.

“Virtual Reality Arcade: Get your game face on,” reads one banner. When you get your head around the low-tech appearance of the area, and your feet around the maze of cables on the floor, you realise that it harbours a high-tech secret.

For the moment, this is almost the only place in South Africa where one can try out the full extent of mainstream virtual reality (VR) experiences, using the full range of high-end virtual reality headsets. The VRcade, as it has been branded, presently offers six VR experiences, using the HTC Vive, Oculus Rift and Samsung Galaxy Gear VR headsets.

The action ranges from the typical outer space shoot-em-up to an exhilarating mountain-climbing expedition, to a deep-sea encounter with whales, giant squid and jellyfish. And, of course, zombie and robot wars, as one would expect in any self-respecting VR gaming ecosystem. All of it is, not surprisingly, more high-tech than the appearance of the arcade itself.

But that is about to change.

The reality is that these are early days. The pop-up appearance of the arcade speaks to both its status as a typical start-up, and the fact that it is has been waiting for suitable premises. A section of Workshop 17 has been earmarked, but the bureaucratic wheels of the V&A Waterfront seem to grind more slowly than a 19th century sluice gate.

Once the VRcade’s new home is ready, visitors can expect an experience right out of the future, says Zach Joubert, founder and managing director of VRcade.

“We’re having custom VR boxes built, with padded walls and cables from the ceiling so that you’re not stepping on them. Our plan is to ride the VR wave, so we’re now trying to source wireless VR sets, and we want to get VR treadmills.”

The technology is evolving more rapidly now than at any time in the past two decades. When the first VR machines arrived in South Africa in the mid-1990s, they were large enough to fill a small room, and the gaming experience was severely undermined by harsh pixellation, meaning one could almost see the pixels or graphic elements making up each scene.

Now, the Samsung Galaxy Gear VR headset allows a far superior experience to be packed into a Samsung Galaxy S6 or S7 smartphone clipped to the front of the device, with no computer connections required. However, the versions of the phone available in South Africa are not as highly optimised for VR as those sold in the USA.

At the AfricaCom telecommunications expo in Cape Town last week, this message was brought home at a stand that seemed completely out of place amid numerous enterprise and infrastructure players. Qualcomm, the American company that makes most of the computer chips used in smartphones today, was demonstrating how one would experience the Gear VR using a chip intended for VR.

The headsets used the version of the S7 edge being sold in the USA, with a Snapdragon 820 chip: the current high end for mobile processors. The experience was noticeably better than the “South African version”, which uses an Exynos 8890 chip, as do the versions sold in Europe, Korea and Canada. Compared to the S7 edge with an Exynos chip, the Snapdragon version sees almost no lag between tapping on the control panel on the side of the headset and seeing the action playing itself out on the screen.

“That’s how you’re meant to experience the Gear VR,” said James Munn, sub-Saharan Africa vice president of business development for Qualcomm. “The massive demands of the technology demand a more powerful chip, and Qualcomm is committed to meeting the highest mobile demands.”

One problem that the chip can’t solve, though, is the persistent presence of apparent pixellation. This is puzzling for the typical user, who expects to experience high-definition visuals, and is still confronted by what looks like a fine grid overlaying the images.

“That’s because it’s so close to your face,” says Ruan Stahnke, who provides technical support at VRcade, and is working on his own VR game as part of a year-end project for his games design studies. “To avoid it, you have to use 4K – ultra high-definition – which I imagine will be the main thing they push for these headsets in the coming years.

“The Gear VR has high theoretical resolution, but the phones can’t push those graphics. It’s also going to challenge the limits of graphics cards. This is going to get very expensive, so it may not happen immediately.”

While we wait for the future to arrive, though, the VRcade will be offering a semblance of it.

“We started this as a fun project on the side and it quickly became a Frankenstein in terms of time and resources it demanded,” says Chery Simson, co-founder and operations manager of VRcade. “It’s not easy to operate, so we spend a lot of time figuring it out.”

Both Joubert and Simson are lawyers, who were studying part-time for their Masters degrees when they received a request for proposals from the University of Cape Town’s Graduate School of Business. They pitched the idea of a VR arcade that would bring back the concept of social multiplayer gaming that once inspired thousands of games arcades.

“We were invited to join a three-month start-up incubation programme,” Joubert recalls. “We very quickly realised we didn’t have the time, and Chery agreed to run it full-time. I still work as an advocate and do this part-time.”

Now, the VRcade is about to make another leap into the future: it will launch in Midrand at Vodaworld , as part of the rebranding of Vodacom’s flagship retail mall. Several competitors have also emerged.  Blue Ocean VR has opened doors in Johannesburg’s Bedfordview suburb, with a range of experiences using the HTC Vive headset. Meanwhile, back in Cape Town, Virtualworld has set up a Vive-based VR shop in Claremont.

School holidays cannot come soon enough, as the arcades wait for the crowds to arrive.

“We’re very feast or famine,” says Joubert. “Some days we get more people than we can cope with, and other days are very quiet. During school holidays we’re booked out every single day. The real challenge is scalability: having sufficient resources to meet the demand when it comes.”

  • 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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Acer gaming beast escapes

Acer this week unveiled two notebooks that take portable gaming to new extremes.

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Acer  unveiled two new Predator Helios gaming notebooks this week at the next@acer global press conference in New York. They include the powerful Predator Helios 500, featuring up to 8th Gen Intel Core i9+ processors, and the Predator Helios 300 Special Edition that includes upgraded specs from its predecessor and a distinctive white chassis. Both feature VR-Ready performance, advanced thermal technologies, and blazing-fast connectivity.

“We’ve expanded our Predator Helios gaming notebook line in response to popular demand from gamers seeking extreme performance on the go,” said Jerry Kao, President of IT Products Business, Acer. “The Predator Helios 500 and Helios 300 gaming notebooks feature Acer’s proprietary thermal technologies and powerful components that, coupled with our award-winning software, deliver unparalleled gaming experiences.”

“The 8th Gen Intel Core i9+ processor for gaming and creation laptops is the highest performance Intel has ever delivered for this class of devices; purpose built for enthusiasts who demand premium gaming experiences whether at home or on the go,” said Steve Long, Vice President and General Manager, Client Computing Group Sales and Marketing, Intel. “Intel and Acer’s long relationship has produced amazing products over the years, and the new Acer Predator Helios gaming notebooks are powerful examples of what’s possible with this unprecedented level of performance.”

Predator Helios 500 is a gaming beast featuring overclocking, 4K 144 Hz panels

Designed for extreme gamers, the Predator Helios 500 is a gaming beast. It features up to overclockable 8th Gen Intel Core i9+ processors and overclockable GeForce GTX 1070 graphics. Intel Optane memory increases responsiveness and load times, while ultra-fast NVMePCIe SSDs, Killer DoubleShot Pro networking, and up to 64GB of memory keep the action going, making the Helios 500 the ideal gaming notebook for graphic-intensive AAA titles and live streaming.

Top-notch visuals are delivered on bright, vibrant 4K UHD or FHD IPS 17.3-inch displays with 144Hz refresh rates for blur- and tear-free gameplay. NVIDIA G-SYNC technology is supported on both the built-in display and external monitors, allowing for buttery-smooth imagery without tearing or stuttering. For those looking for maximum gaming immersion, dual Thunderbolt 3 ports, and display and HDMI 2.0 ports support up to three external monitors. Two speakers, a subwoofer, and Acer TrueHarmony and Waves MAXXAudio technology deliver incredible sound and hyper-realistic 3D audio using Waves Nx.

The Helios 500 stays cool with two of Acer’s proprietary AeroBlade 3D metal fans, and five heat pipes that distribute cool air to the machine’s key components while simultaneously releasing hot air. Fan speed can be controlled and customized through the PredatorSense app.

A backlit RGB keyboard offers four lighting zones with support for up to 16.8 million colors. Anti-ghosting technology provides the ultimate control for executing complex commands and combos, which can be set up via five dedicated programmable keys.

Acer’s PredatorSense app can be used to control and monitor the notebook’s vitals from one central interface, including overclocking, lighting, hotkeys, temperature, and fan control.

Predator Helios 300 Special Edition brings a sophisticated design twist to gaming notebooks

Acer’s budget-friendly Helios 300 gaming line sees the addition of a Special Edition model featuring an all-white aluminum chassis accented with gold trim, an unusually chic design for gaming notebooks.

The Helios 300 Special Edition (PH315-51) allows for ultra-smooth gameplay via its 15.6-inch FHD IPS display with an upgraded 144Hz refresh rate. The rapid refresh rate shortens frame rendering time and lowers input lag to give gamers an excellent in-game experience. It’s powered by up to an 8th Gen Intel Core i7+ processor, overclockable GeForce GTX 1060 graphics, up to a 512 GB PCIe Gen 3 NVMe solid state drive, and up to a 2 TB hard disk drive.

The Helios 300 Special Edition also comes equipped with up to 16 GB of DDR4 memory, and is upgradable to 32GB. Intel Optane memory speeds up load times of games and applications, access to information and improves overall system responsiveness. In addition, Gigabit Ethernet provides fast wired connections, while Gigabit Wi-Fi is provided by the latest Intel Wireless-AC 9560 that delivers up to 1.73Gbps throughput when using 160 MHz channels (2×2 802.11ac, dual-band 2.4GHz and 5GHz).

The Helios 300 Special Edition also includes two of Acer’s ultrathin (0.1 mm) all-metal AeroBlade 3D fans designed with advanced aerodynamics and superior airflow to keep the system cool. They can be controlled with Acer’s PredatorSense app, which offers three usage modes:

1. Coolboost mode:

For heavy loading games, rendering, streaming, and extended video consumption

2. Normal mode:

For productivity tools like Microsoft Office

3. Silent mode:

For web browsing and online chatting

Price and Availability

Predator Helios 500 will be available in South Africa in June starting at R34 999.00

Helios 300 Special Edition will be available in South Africa in August 2018. Exact Price will be communicated closer to the time.

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LG G7 arrives in SA

LG this week introduced South Africa to its latest premium smartphone, the LG G7 ThinQ, focused on bringing useful and convenient AI features to the smartphone experience.

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Powered by the latest Qualcomm Snapdragon 845 Mobile Platform, the LG G7 ThinQ offers 4GB of RAM and 64GB of internal storage to run demanding tasks and apps with. It is equipped with a 6.1-inch Super Bright Display, but the LG G7 ThinQ remains compact enough to use with one hand.

Sporting a new design aesthetic for the G series, the polished metal rim gives the LG G7 ThinQ a sleeker, more refined look, complemented by Gorilla Glass 5 on both the front and the back for enhanced durability. Rated IP68 for dust and water resistance, the LG G7 ThinQ is also awarded MIL-STD 810 c certification, having been subjected to a range of extreme temperature and environment tests designed by the United States military.

The LG G7 ThinQ has an 8MP camera up front, rendering clear and natural selfies, with two 16MP cameras at the back that deliver higher resolution photos with more detail, as well as a Super Wide Angle configuration.

As with other leading brands, LG has evolved its signature camera by including AI functionality. The AI CAM offers 19 shooting modes for intelligence-optimised shots. Users can also improve their photos by choosing from an additional three effect options should the AI CAM recommendation not suit their taste.

The new Super Bright Camera captures images that are up to four times brighter than typical photos shot in dim light. Through the combination of pixel binning and software processing, the AI algorithm adjusts the camera settings automatically when shooting in low light.

Live Photo Mode records one second before and after the shutter is pressed for snippets of unexpected moments or expressions that would normally be missed. Stickers uses face recognition to generate fun 2D and 3D overlays, such as sunglasses and headbands, that can be viewed directly on the display.

New to the G series is Portrait Mode, which generates professional-looking shots with out-of-focus backgrounds. This effect can be generated using both front and rear standard lenses as well as the rear Super Wide Angle lens.

LG G7 ThinQ offers further AI functionality with the inclusion of Google Lens features. Google Lens is a new way to search using the AI and computer vision. Google Assistant and Google Photos allow users to access more information on objects such as landmarks, plants, animals, and books. It can identify text or visit websites, add business cards to contacts, events to the calendar or look up an item on a restaurant menu.

A button just below the volume keys launches the AI functionality. A single tap of this button launches the Google Assistant, while two quick taps launches Google Lens. Users can also hold down the button to start talking to the Google Assistant without the repetition of the OK Google command.

With Super Far Field Voice Recognition (SFFVR) and the highly-sensitive G7ThinQ microphone, the Google Assistant can recognise voice commands from up to five meters away. SFFVR is able to separate commands from background noise, making the LG G7 ThinQ an alternative to a home AI speaker, even when the TV is on. Commands for the Google Assistant have been increased in the LG G7 ThinQ so users can get more done with their voice alone.

“The LG G7 ThinQ is strongly focused on the fundamentals and its launch marks a new chapter for our company,” said Deon Prinsloo, General Manager for Mobile Communication, LG Electronics S.A Pty Ltd. “Through the combination of personalised and useful AI functionalities with meaningful smartphone features, this is LG’s most convenient and in the moment smartphone yet.”

Key Specifications

  • Mobile Platform: Qualcomm Snapdragon 845 Mobile Platform
  • Display: 6.1-inch QHD+ 19.5:9 FullVision Super Bright Display (3120 x 1440 / 564ppi)
  • Memory:
    • LG G7 ThinQ: 4GB LPDDR4x RAM / 64GB UFS 2.1 ROM / MicroSD (up to 2TB)
  • Camera:
    • Rear Dual: 16MP Super Wide Angle (F1.9 / 107°) / 16MP Standard Angle (F1.6 / 71°)
    • Front: 8MP Wide Angle (F1.9 / 80°)
  • Battery: 3000mAh
  • OS: Android 8.0 Oreo
  • Size: 153.2 x 71.9 x 7.9mm
  • Weight: 162g
  • Connectivity: Wi-Fi 802.11 a, b, g, n, ac / Bluetooth 5.0 BLE / NFC / USB Type-C 2.0 (3.1 compatible)
  • Colours: New Aurora Black
  • Others: Super Bright Display / New Second Screen / AI CAM / Super Bright Camera / Super Far Field Voice Recognition / Boombox Speaker / Google Lens / AI Haptic / Hi-Fi Quad DAC / DTS:X 3D Surround Sound / IP68 Water and Dust Resistance / HDR10 / Google Assistant Key / Face Recognition / Fingerprint Sensor / Qualcomm Quick Charge 3.0 Technology / Wireless Charging / MIL-STD 810G Compliant / FM Radio
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