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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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Money talks and electronic gaming evolves

Computer gaming has evolved dramatically in the last two years, as it follows the money, writes ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK in the second of a two-part series.

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The clue that gaming has become big business in South Africa was delivered by a non-gaming brand. When Comic Con, an American popular culture convention that has become a mecca for comics enthusiasts, was hosted in South Arica for the first time last month, it used gaming as the major drawcard. More than 45 000 people attended.

The event and its attendance was expected to be a major dampener for the annual rAge gaming expo, which took place just weeks later. Instead, rAge saw only a marginal fall in visitor numbers. No less than 34 000 people descended on the Ticketpro Dome for the chaos of cosplay, LAN gaming, virtual reality, board gaming and new video games. 

It proved not only that there was room for more than one major gaming event, but also that a massive market exists for the sector in South Africa. And with a large market, one also found numerous gaming niches that either emerged afresh or will keep going over the years. One of these, LAN (for Local Area Network) gaming, which sees hordes of players camping out at the venue for three days to play each other on elaborate computer rigs, was back as strong as ever at rAge.

MWeb provided an 8Gbps line to the expo, to connect all these gamers, and recorded 120TB in downloads and 15Tb in uploads – a total that would have used up the entire country’s bandwidth a few years ago.

“LANs are supposed to be a thing of the past, yet we buck the trend each year,” says Michael James, senior project manager and owner of rAge. “It is more of a spectacle than a simple LAN, so I can understand.”

New phenomena, often associated with the flavour of the moment, also emerge every year.

“Fortnite is a good example this year of how we evolve,” says James. “It’s a crazy huge phenomenon and nobody was servicing the demand from a tournament point of view. So rAge and Xbox created a casual LAN tournament that anyone could enter and win a prize. I think the top 10 people got something each round.”

Read on to see how esports is starting to make an impact in gaming.

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Blockchain unpacked

Blockchain is generally associated with Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies, but these are just the tip of the iceberg, says ESET Southern Africa.

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This technology was originally conceived in 1991, when Stuart Haber and W. Scott Stornetta described their first work on a chain of cryptographically secured blocks, but only gained notoriety in 2008, when it became popular with the arrival of Bitcoin. It is currently gaining demand in other commercial applications and its annual growth is expected to reach 51% by 2022 in numerous markets, such as those of financial institutions and the Internet of Things (IoT), according to MarketWatch.

What is blockchain?

A blockchain is a unique, consensual record that is distributed over multiple network nodes. In the case of cryptocurrencies, think of it as the accounting ledger where each transaction is recorded.

A blockchain transaction is complex and can be difficult to understand if you delve into the inner details of how it works, but the basic idea is simple to follow.

Each block stores:

–           A number of valid records or transactions.
–           Information referring to that block.
–           A link to the previous block and next block through the hash of each block—a unique code that can be thought of as the block’s fingerprint.

Accordingly, each block has a specific and immovable place within the chain, since each block contains information from the hash of the previous block. The entire chain is stored in each network node that makes up the blockchain, so an exact copy of the chain is stored in all network participants.

As new records are created, they are first verified and validated by the network nodes and then added to a new block that is linked to the chain.

How is blockchain so secure?

Being a distributed technology in which each network node stores an exact copy of the chain, the availability of the information is guaranteed at all times. So if an attacker wanted to cause a denial-of-service attack, they would have to annul all network nodes since it only takes one node to be operative for the information to be available.

Besides that, since each record is consensual, and all nodes contain the same information, it is almost impossible to alter it, ensuring its integrity. If an attacker wanted to modify the information in a blockchain, they would have to modify the entire chain in at least 51% of the nodes.

In blockchain, data is distributed across all network nodes. With no central node, all participate equally, storing, and validating all information. It is a very powerful tool for transmitting and storing information in a reliable way; a decentralised model in which the information belongs to us, since we do not need a company to provide the service.

What else can blockchain be used for?

Essentially, blockchain can be used to store any type of information that must be kept intact and remain available in a secure, decentralised and cheaper way than through intermediaries. Moreover, since the information stored is encrypted, its confidentiality can be guaranteed, as only those who have the encryption key can access it.

Use of blockchain in healthcare

Health records could be consolidated and stored in blockchain, for instance. This would mean that the medical history of each patient would be safe and, at the same time, available to each doctor authorised, regardless of the health centre where the patient was treated. Even the pharmaceutical industry could use this technology to verify medicines and prevent counterfeiting.

Use of blockchain for documents

Blockchain would also be very useful for managing digital assets and documentation. Up to now, the problem with digital is that everything is easy to copy, but Blockchain allows you to record purchases, deeds, documents, or any other type of online asset without them being falsified.

Other blockchain uses

This technology could also revolutionise the Internet of Things  (IoT) market where the challenge lies in the millions of devices connected to the internet that must be managed by the supplier companies. In a few years’ time, the centralised model won’t be able to support so many devices, not to mention the fact that many of these are not secure enough. With blockchain, devices can communicate through the network directly, safely, and reliably with no need for intermediaries.

Blockchain allows you to verify, validate, track, and store all types of information, from digital certificates, democratic voting systems, logistics and messaging services, to intelligent contracts and, of course, money and financial transactions.

Without doubt, blockchain has turned the immutable and decentralized layer the internet has always dreamed about into a reality. This technology takes reliance out of the equation and replaces it with mathematical fact.

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