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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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Android Go puts reliable smartphones in budget pockets

Nokia, Vodacom and Huawei have all launched entry-level smartphones running the Android Go edition, and all deliver a smooth experience, writes BRYAN TURNER.

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Three new and notable Android Go smartphones have recently hit the market, namely the Nokia 1, the Vodafone Smart Kicka 4 and the Huawei Y3 (2018). These phones run one of the most basic versions of Android while still delivering a fairly smooth user experience.

Historically, consumers purchasing smartphones in the budget bracket would have a hit-and-miss experience with processing speed, smoothness of user interface, and app stability. The Google-supported Android Go edition operating system optimises the user experience by stripping out non-important visual effects to speed up the phone. Thish allows for more memory to be used by apps. 

Google also ensures that all smartphones running Android Go will receive feature and security updates as they are released by Google. This is a major selling point for these smartphones, as users of this smartphone will always be running the latest software, with virtually no manufacturer bloatware.

Vodafone Smart Kicka 4

At the lowest entry-level, the Vodafone Smart Kicka 4 performs well as a communicator for emails and WhatsApp messages. The 4” screen represents a step up for entry-level Android phones, which were previously standardised at 3.5”.

The display is bright and very responsive, while the limited screen real estate leaves the navigation keys off the screen as touch buttons. It uses 3G connectivity, which might seem like an outdated technology, but is good enough to stream SD videos and music. Vodacom has also thrown in some data gifts if the smartphone is activated before the end of September 2018. 

Its camera functionalities might be a slight let down for the aspirant Instagrammer, with a 2MP rear flash camera and a 0.3MP selfie snapper. Speed wise, the keyboard pops up quickly, which is a huge improvement from the Smart Kicka 3. However, this phone will not play well with graphics-intensive games. 

Nokia 1

Next up is the Nokia 1, which adds a much better 5MP camera, improved battery life and a bigger 4.5” screen. It supports LTE, which allows this smartphone to download and upload at the speed of flagships. It also sports the Nokia brand name, which many consumers trust.

Although the front camera is 2MP, the quality is extremely grainy, even with good lighting. This disqualifies this smartphone for the social media selfie snapper, but the 5MP rear camera will work for the landscape and portrait photographer. 

The screen also redeems this smartphone, providing a display which represents colours truly and has great viewing angles. Xpress-on back covers allows the use of interchangeable, multi-coloured back covers, which has proven to be a successful sales point for mid-range smartphones in the past. 

Huawei Y3 (2018)

The most capable of the Android Go edition competitors, the Huawei Y3 (2018) packs an even bigger screen at 5”, as well as an improved 8MP rear camera and HD video recording. The screen is the brightest and most vibrant of the three smartphones, but seems to be calibrated to show colours a little more saturated than they actually are. 

Nevertheless, the camera outperforms the other smartphones with good colour replication and great selfie capabilities via the 2MP front camera – far superior to the Nokia 1 despite the same spec. LTE also comes standard with this smartphone and Vodacom throws in 4G/LTE data goodies until the end of September 2018. The battery, however, is not removable and may only be replaced by a warranty technician.

Comparing the 3

All three smartphones have removable back covers, which provide access to the battery, SIM card and SD card slots. The smartphones have Micro USB ports on the bottom with headphone jacks on the top. The built-in speakers all performed well, with the Y3 (2018) housing an exceptionally loud built-in speaker. 

Although all at different price points, all three phones remain similar in performance and speed. The differentiators are apparent in the components, like camera quality and screen quality. It would be fair to rank the quality of the camera and battery life by respective market prices. The Vodafone Smart Kicka 4 performed well, for its R399 retail price. The Nokia 1, on the other hand, lags quite a bit in features when compared to the Huawei Y3 (2018), bwith oth retailing at R999.

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SA gets digital archive

As the world entered the centenary of Nelson Mandela’s birth on Mandela Day, 18 July 2018, South Africa celebrated the launch of a digital living archive. 

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The southafrica.co.za  site carries content about the country’s collective heritage in South Africa’s eleven official languages.

Designed as a nation building,  educational and brand promotion web based tool, the free-to-view platform features award-winning photographic and written content by leading South African photographers, authors, academics and photojournalists.

The emphasis is on quality, credible, factual content that celebrates a collective heritage in terms of the following: Cultural Heritage; Natural Heritage; Education; History; Agriculture; Industry; Mining; and Travel.

At the same time as reflecting on the nation’s history, southafrica.co.za celebrates South Africa’s natural, cultural and economic assets so that the youth can learn about their nation in their home language.

Southafrica.co.za Founder and CEO Hans Gerrizen conceptualised southafrica.co.za as a means for youth and communities from outlying areas to benefit from the digital age in terms of the web tool’s empowering educational component.

“We can only stand to deepen our collective experience of democracy and become a more forward planning nation if we know facts about our nation’s past and present in everyone’s home language,” he says.

Southafrica.co.za, with sister company Siyabona Africa, is the organiser and sponsor of the Mandela: 100 Moments photographic exhibition that runs until 30 September at Cape Town’s V&A Waterfront-based Nelson Mandela Gateway to Robben Island.  The 3-month exhibition, which runs daily from 08h00 until 15h00, is showcasing one hundred iconic Nelson Mandela images taken by veteran South African photojournalist and self-taught lensman Peter Magubane.

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