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December 03 2010

7 areas beyond gaming where Kinect could play a role

Kinect for Xbox 360. Image courtesy Microsoft/Xbox press kit.

I recently had the opportunity to put Microsoft's Kinect to the test. While the device may prove to be a financial success (it seems well on its way), my takeaway was all about sense, not dollars.

For the first time in my adult life, I played a video game with one of my parents and we both enjoyed the experience. The parent in question was able to interact with the set-top box without navigating a dozen different buttons on complicated controllers. Some of my younger relatives took to the interface like otters learning to swim.

Kinect, at this stage, isn't perfect. As the Wall Street Journal and Engadget noted in reviews, a controller is still needed to access certain menus or functions, and accuracy-focused tasks that involve manipulating objects don't work all that well.

Glitches aside, after using Kinect it's clear to me that the device's full potential isn't bound only to games. What caught and held my attention was the device's gestural user interface, or what Microsoft research scientist Craig Mundie more specifically described to Computerworld as Kinect's "natural user interface."

Joe Sinicki summarized Kinect's broader influence in his review: "The main draw of Kinect is not what it does now, but what developers may be able to do with it in the future." Given OpenKinect, a set of open source drivers that unlocks the device's potential, the developer opportunities are considerable.

With that as a backdrop, here are a few ways Kinect could leap beyond its gaming applications.

1. Health and medicine

Chris Niehaus, director of U.S. public sector innovation at Microsoft, blogged at length about Kinect applications in telemedicine, neurological processes, physical therapy and medical training. While Niehaus has a strong motive to highlight the best of Kinect, his post explores the concept well.

R.O.G.E.R. shows how Kinect can be applied to post-stroke patients. For a sense of how motion gaming has already made an impact in this direction, recall the stories about veterans undergoing "Wii-hab" last year, or the cybertherapy pilots underway at various militaries.

2. Special needs children and adults

Look no further than the story of Kinect and John Yan's four-year-old autistic son for a real-world example of how a different interface can literally open up new worlds. Research into computerized gaming and autism already reveals the potential for mirroring applications to improve facial recognition. Kinect hacks might take this further.

3. Exercise

This one has no technical angle at all. It may be a bit too hopeful to think Kinect, Wii, and PlayStation's Move will get overweight children moving. But given the rates of childhood obesity, moving kids from sedentary to active would be a clear win for everything but the living room furniture. That benefit might even extend to parents and seniors.

4. Education

Educational technology has grown in recent years through electronic publishing, learning management systems, and new models for virtual degrees earned online. Will Kinect's video and interface allow for distributed teaching? That's admittedly speculative, but education is an area to watch.

5. Participatory art

This interactive, Kinect-based puppet prototype is just the beginning. As the Kinect platform matures, groups of people dancing in public and private spaces could explore new art forms that blend virtual and physical spaces. Flash mobs could get a lot more distributed.

6. Advertising and e-commerce

The Kinect can already detect multiple people in field. The Xbox 360 already enables users to watch live and recorded sports on ESPN. As more intelligence is built into the platform, combining those two capacities could go far beyond changing channels. It could lead to recognizing different users, profiles and creating a more interactive watching experience. Early integration with Twitter and Facebook are a start, but they don't lend themselves to fully socializing the experience. Neither does Microsoft's Live community, though it's not hard to imagine that feature evolving into a full-fledged social network.

7. Navigating the web / exploring digital spaces

If you've seen "Minority Report" or watched video of Oblong Industry's spatial operating system, you're already familiar with the concept of gestural interfaces. Kinect could be an initial step toward making that concept a reality. In fact, a team from MIT's Media Lab has already developed a Kinect hack that allows for gesture-driven web surfing:


November 05 2010

Windows Phone apps are more expensive than iPhone apps

The Windows Marketplace for Mobile now has about 1,400 apps spread across 16 categories. In this short post I'll provide some basic statistics* and compare it with the grandaddy of app stores - the U.S. iTunes store.

First let's look at the distribution of apps across categories. Like the iPhone and Android platforms, Windows Phone 6.x / 7 are rich in game apps. Given that there are far fewer Windows Phone apps, it may take some time before we see the variety of categories found in iTunes. There are large iPhone categories (medical**, education, sports ... ) that aren't part of the taxonomy for Windows Marketplace for Mobile.


More than 90% of the 280,000+ iTunes apps aren't free, compared to 78% of apps available on Windows Marketplace for Mobile. Below are the share of free/paid apps across the different categories.


At least for now, Windows Phone 6.x / 7 apps are pricier than iPhone apps. The mean price of a paid iPhone app is $3.43, compared to $6.16 for paid apps available on Windows Marketplace for Mobile. Welcome news for the many developers gearing up to produce apps for Windows Phone 7!


(*) Data for this post: U.S. iTunes store through 10/31/2010, limited to iPhone apps; Windows Marketplace for Mobile through 11/3/2010.

(**) The Medical category was added several months after the launch of the iTunes app store.

November 02 2010

Four short links: 2 November 2010

  1. Lessons from the Johnny Cash Project -- When a participatory activity is designed without a goal in mind, you end up with a bunch of undervalued stuff and nowhere to put it. (via Courtney Johnston)
  2. Doom iPhone Review -- fascinating explanation of how the iPhone works for programmers, and how the Doom source code works around some of the less-game-friendly features. (via Tom Carden on Delicious)
  3. The 8 Pen -- new alphanumeric entry system for Android.
  4. Salesforce Security -- lots of information for web developers, most generally applicable. (via Pete Warden)

October 20 2010

Four short links: 20 October 2010

  1. Pwned: Gamification and its Discontents (Slideshare) -- hear, hear! Video games are not fun because they're video games, but if and only they are well-designed. Just adding something from games isn't a guarantee for fun. (via jameshome on Twitter)
  2. Redis Under the Hood -- explanation of the insides and mechanisms of this popular distributed key-value store. (via tlockney on delicious)
  3. The LAN of Things (Mike Kuniavsky) -- Before we can have an Internet of Things, we will need to have a LAN of things.[...] Most of the utility of a LAN came from its local functionality. Thus, before we can build a useful (from a user perspective) Internet of Things, we need to learn to build useful LANs of Things. [...] I think it's important to start thinking about what the highly localized uses of sparsely distributed technology can be. What can we do when there are only a couple of things with RFIDs in our house? What totally great service can be built on having two light switches that report their telemetry in the house? What totally valuable information can you tell me if I only wear my motion sensor every once in a while? Love it. (via Matt Jones on Delicious)
  4. Mike Edson's Talk at Powerhouse Museum -- the Director of Web and New Media Technology at the Smithsonian is smart, articulate, and trying to do something cool with the Smithsonian Commons prototype. (via sebchan on Twitter)

October 12 2010

Four short links: 12 October 2010

  1. The Zen of Open Data (Chris McDowall) -- lovely short piece that encapsulates the whole business.
  2. The Calculus of Committee Composition (PlosONE) -- using accuracy of judges, cost of a wrong decision, and cost of judges to arrive at the correct number of judges for any given situation. (Breaking news: ice skating gets it wrong) This might be useful for crowdsourcing.
  3. First Person Tetris -- clever twist on an old game. (via Nick Bilton)
  4. htty -- terminal for interacting with HTTP servers. This would be great for teaching would-be developers how the web actually works on the inside.

September 23 2010

Reality has a gaming layer

Kevin Slavin has been thinking about the intersection of games and daily life for nearly a decade. As the managing director of Area/Code, he's worked with Frank Lantz to integrate gameplay into the fabric of reality using a technique they call "big games." In the following interview, Slavin discusses the thinning boundary between the game world and the real world.

What are "big games"?

Kevin SlavinKevin Slavin: They're games that take place using some elements from the game system and some elements of the real world. Something Frank Lantz had worked on with Katie Salen and Nick Fortugno was called the Big Urban Game. It involved transforming the city of Minneapolis into a game board. They did that by using huge inflatable game pieces, about 25-feet high. The players, among other things, were moving these huge pieces around the city.

At Area/Code we built another big game in 2004 called ConQwest. It used huge inflatable totem animals that would take over the city. I think it was also the first use of optic code with phone cams in the United States. Players used Qwest phones that were programmed to recognize codes embedded throughout the city. Some codes were on huge billboards. Some were on the sides of coffee cups. Some were on napkins. The codes had infiltrated the city and players could unlock treasure with the magic technology of these phones.

That was a very exciting thing to play around with. It you chose to participate, you were experiencing the same physical space as always, but it involved totally different criteria and totally different objectives.

Using an urban landscape as a game board sounds a lot like Foursquare.

KS: It's not a total coincidence. Dennis Crowley was the third partner at Area/Code for a little while, in between being at Google and starting Foursquare. Part of the underlying ethos of Foursquare is also what is underneath Area/Code. There's a few of us who have been thinking about how "play" and the "city" were going to combine. We've been drinking the same Kool-Aid from the same cooler for quite a while.

How do virtual games like Second Life compare to the games you develop?

Kevin Slavin: We always thought we would use Second Life as the enemy, that it was the exact opposite of what we were trying to do. If Second Life was about trying to simulate reality optically, what we were interested in was running light interference with the real world to make it more interesting.

One thing that Second Life and the movement toward augmented reality have in common is that they both believe the pleasure of a game and the meaning of a game and the experience of a game rest primarily in the optics. The closer we can get to making something look like it's really there, the more excited we'll be about using it.

But I think that there's a fundamental misunderstanding about what makes games fun. Chess wouldn't be more fun if you had perfectly rendered kings and actual castles. Monopoly wouldn't be better if it was true to the actual layout of Atlantic City. What makes games great are the systems with which you're engaging. When you play a game, you're not so much looking at something; you're doing something.

I think one of the best examples of this is Tamagotchi, the plastic keychain that had a digital creature on it. You actually felt an obligation to this little creature. The creature itself was maybe eight pixels by eight pixels and black and white. What made it feel real wasn't that it looked real; it was that it acted real. It could articulate demands upon you that your eye itself couldn't do. In Tamagotchi versus Second Life, I'll go with Tamagotchi.

Aren't things like Tamagotchi the precursor to the repetitive games we see today, like FarmVille?

KS: That's a big question, and there's a lot of ways to answer it. I think as every form of culture has become ascendant, the idea emerges that we were once tidy and productive citizens who have suddenly shifted into a different mode of behavior and no longer value our time. Right now, social games are in focus. There's a lot of things to look at here that are very important and interesting.

For example, years ago we made a Facebook game called Parking Wars. It had incredible numbers, like a billion pages a year. The game was successful in part because it was so simple to engage with. Basically, you're trying to park illegally on somebody else's street and you're also trying to catch people who are parked illegally on your street.

Parking Wars had a bunch of side effects that were fascinating to watch. It became a kind of conversation that people were having with each other. There would be vendettas where people would check every five minutes to see if somebody in particular had parked on their street.

But I think what these games do is best characterized in a story that's ultimately very sad. At one point we added an ice cream truck into the Parking Wars mix. If it was parked on a street, it amplified the value of all of the other cars. There was an alpha player, a woman named Ellie, who would park the ice cream truck on a street and then let everybody know so they could come get double points.

It turned out that Ellie was very sick and ultimately, she passed away. What was so powerful was to see how everybody responded to her passion. What they wrote to her post-mortem were these really beautiful notes that talked about her generosity and her humility. The thing that's really interesting is how much of her personality she was able to express through 47 pixels of an ice cream truck.

That speaks to what games are really doing, which is allowing people to express themselves in a living system with other people who are doing the same. You're actually making decisions that are going to move one way or the other and that will have effects concretely on other people. I think that for many people, sometimes including me, real life doesn't always feel like something that you can have concrete effects on in a systemic way. It's not always easy to figure out how to be generous in a way that can touch a lot of strangers. Games allow us to do these kinds of things. It's true that what's happening in them is fictional and useless, but it's as fictional and useless as literature or cinema. Games allow us to see each other, for a moment, in a way that living in a city prevents.

If we make the real world part of a fictional world, will we ignore the real world that isn't part of that fictional world?

KS: When we were thinking about ConQwest -- the game with the optic codes -- the specific inspiration for that piece of it was the old James Carpenter film, "They Live." The conceit of that film is that if you have these glasses on, you can see the real world. This is a common trope in science fiction, but the idea that the glasses allowed our hero to see things differently and thus act on that shift in vision made us think: "God, what power that is. How beautiful that would feel."

I'd argue that we're already living in deeply fractured realities. I'm sitting in an office with a high-end laptop, and there are no fewer than three homeless people that I can see from my window. We are fractured, and this is particularly true in cities.

To turn it around a little bit, the thing that's powerful about these new forms of play is not so much that they fracture us into our individual realities, but that they're connect us to common ones. Something like Foursquare doesn't fracture the world. It pulls people together. Ultimately, if we can understand these game layers as a place where we're convening rather than the place where we're all departing from, I think there's a lot of beautiful things still left to do.

Kevin Slavin will discuss the influence of invisible systems at Web 2.0 Expo New York.


September 06 2010

Four short links: 6 September 2010

  1. Akihabara (Github) -- open source (GPL2 and MIT dual-licensed) HTML5/Javascript engine for classic arcade games. (via chadfowler on Twitter)
  2. Eureka Streams -- open sourced Java app for enterprise Twitter-like activity: build a profile, join groups, post updates, subscribe to updates from individuals or groups. (via dlpeters on Twitter)
  3. Open Microbiome -- hoping to build open tools, standard samples, data, and metadata for analysis of the microbiome (all the microorganisms that live in, on, and with macroorganisms like us). Early days, but glad to see people are already thinking of building this research open from the ground up. And if you think sequencing the human genome gave us a lot of data we struggle to find patterns in, wait until you start including microorganisms: we have 10x as many bacteria in us as we have cells and the species variety is vast. (via phylogenomics on Twitter)
  4. Habits of Mathematical Minds -- fantastic list of skills and approaches that are hallmarks of many successful minds, not just in mathematics. (via ddmeyer on Twitter)

September 03 2010

Four short links: 3 Sep 2010

  1. Arranging Things: The Rhetoric of Object Placement (Amazon) -- [...] the underlying principles that govern how Western designers arrange things in three-dimensional compositions. Inspired by Greek and Roman notions of rhetoric [...] Koren elucidates the elements of arranging rhetoric that all designers instinctively use in everything from floral compositions to interior decorating. (via Elaine Wherry)
  2. 2010 Mario AI Championship -- three tracks: Gameplay, Learning, and Level Generation. Found via Ben Weber's account of his Level Generation entry. My submission utilizes a multi-pass approach to level generation in which the system iterates through the level several times, placing different types of objects during each pass. During each pass through the level, a subset of each object type has a specific probability of being added to the level. The result is a computationally efficient approach to generating a large space of randomized levels.
  3. Wave in a Box -- Google to flesh out existing open source Wave client and server into full "Wave in a Box" app status.
  4. 3D Sound in Google Earth (YouTube) -- wow. (via Planet In Action)

July 19 2010

In defense of games in the workplace

We're hardwired to play games. We play them for fun. We play them in our social interactions. We play them at work.

Dave GrayThat last one is tricky. "Games" and "work" don't seem like a natural pairing. Their coupling in the workplace either implies goofing off (the fun variant) or office politics (the not-so-fun type).

Dave Gray, Sunni Brown, and James Macanufo, co-authors of the upcoming book "Gamestorming," have a different perspective. They contend that an embrace and understanding of game mechanics can yield benefits in many work environments, particularly those where old hierarchical models are no longer applicable.

In the following Q&A, Gray discusses the collaborative power of games and how they can cut through increasing workplace complexity.

What is Gamestorming?

Dave Gray: Gamestorming is a set of collaboration practices that originated in Silicon Valley in the 1970s and has been evolving ever since. It's an approach that emphasizes quick, ad-hoc organization of teams so they can rapidly co-design and co-develop ideas. As my co-authors and I observed these practices, they seemed to look more like games than any other form of work we were familiar with. Hence the term "gamestorming."

Is each of us playing some sort of game all the time?

DG: In a sense we're always playing games of one sort or another. "Game" is a big word that can have many meanings. For example, "game-playing," "gaming the system," "getting your head in the game," and so on.

In this context, games are simply a way to put structure around the chaos of creative work. The game rules are a way of distributing information into the space you are working in, and distributing power equally among the people in a group. They are a method for flattening hierarchy, increasing engagement, and just generally speeding things up.

Does Gamestorming require specific skills?

DG: Gamestorming is primarily a mindset. It's an approach to work that's about engaging people in collaboratory activities. It's not a game if people are forced to play, so you need to have people and projects that stir people's curiosity and emotion. The Gamestorming skills are synthesizing and social skills, like visualization, improvisation, good listening and language skills.

Can games apply in any organization? Or, are there jobs and industries where it's less effective?

DG: Gamestorming is a great approach when you are entering into unknown territory, when you need to imagine or design for the future, and when you need to tap creative energy. What games are best at is facilitating collaboration and innovation. Where the work is predictable, or where you want consistency, games are not the solution. You don't want people playing too many games in the accounting department.

What is the relationship between complexity and game mechanics?

DG: The world is only getting more complex, and the more complex a system gets the less predictable it is. Games are a way to create simplified systems that mirror the real world. Plus, they're a safe place to try out various scenarios and see what kinds of results are possible. You can tweak one or two variables and see how that affects the system.

Illustration from Gamestorming

How has workplace motivation changed as we've moved into a knowledge economy?

DG: In a traditional industrial setting, say, a factory, it's easy to see what everybody is doing and how what they do fits into the bigger picture. It's easy to see when people are working and when they are slacking off.

But in a knowledge economy, where people are all moving symbols around on screens, and many work from home or the road, it's harder to coordinate the work. Fundamentally, in a knowledge economy, you want people to be creative. That means you need them to be interested, passionate and engaged. The modern cubicle layout and the intangibility of the work makes it difficult. You need to find ways to make it easier for people to share their work and the excitement they have for it. You need to fan the flames.


Four short links: 19 July 2010

  1. OpenVibe -- open source software for brain-computer interfaces, from Inria.
  2. Robot Controlled by Mind (video) -- uses OpenVibe. I love that this can see blinks and other neural activity, and that it's hackable.
  3. Talend Open Profiler -- open source tool to QA data.
  4. AndEngine -- open source 2D OpenGL Game Engine for the Android platform.

June 30 2010

Popular iPhone games stay highly-ranked only for a few weeks

With 40,000+ Games to choose from, the list of Top 100 free and paid games are frequently scanned by iPhone gamers. In this short post, I'll share some basic statistics on popular games sold through the U.S. iTunes app store1.

How much time does a popular game app spend ranked in the Top 100? In the chart below I calculated how many different days an app appears2 on a Top 100 list. On average (i.e., using the median), a popular Paid game appears on the Top 100 chart on 15 different calendar days3:


A related metric is the proportion of days4 a popular app is on the Top 100 charts: for every 100 days its available in iTunes, a typical popular Paid game is on the Top 100 list on 5 different days.


How long does it take to secure a spot on a Top 100 list? Judging by the median age5 at chart debut, Top 100 game apps tend to crash the charts within a few days of their appearance in iTunes.


(1) Data for this post includes all U.S. iTunes (game) apps from 7/27/2008 to 5/30/2010. Most game apps work on iphones and ipads.

(2) For each app that has ever appeared in either the Top 100 Paid/Free Games lists, I counted the number of different (and possibly non-consecutive) days that app is on the list.

(3) However, the MEDIAN number of days between an app's Top 100 chart debut and final appearance, is 20 days for paid apps and 13 days for free apps.

(4) (# of different days app is in the Top 100) / (# of different days app is in iTunes)

(5) Days between (first appearance in iTunes) and (first appearance on Top 100 list).

June 09 2010

Four short links: 9 June 2010

  1. Game Dev 101 lessons with WarioWare DIY -- Nintendo's long-running and (at its debut) groundbreaking WarioWare franchise has always been predicated on discrete games played for 5-10 seconds at a time, in rapid succession, and it's precisely that stripped-bare approach that makes it an ideal launchpad for re-wiring the way aspiring designers think about what makes games fun. With its own bespoke image and music editor, a graphical scripting language not altogether (so I'm told) that different from the tools available in popular PC package GameMaker, and -- crucially, if a bit over-long for those more familiar with game dev proper -- hours worth of mandatory tutorials that leisurely stroll you through Your First Animated Sprite or Your First Logic Gate. (via BoingBoing)
  2. What Should Mozilla Look For In an Automated Review System -- Mondrian's review comment system really seemed to encourage a style where there was a one-way flow of instructions from the reviewer to the reviewee: "Do this. Do this. Do this." and the reviewee replies with "Done. Done. Done." Sometimes this is appropriate, but oftentimes it isn't. (Mondrian is Google's internal tool for this) (via Marc Hedlund)
  3. DOE Releases BP Oil Spill Data -- As part of the Obama Administration's ongoing commitment to transparency surrounding the response to the BP oil spill, the Department of Energy is providing online access to schematics, pressure tests, diagnostic results and other data about the malfunctioning blowout preventer. (via EllnMllr on Twitter)
  4. The Rise of Crowd Science -- fascinating account of the life work of Alex Szalay, who has turned astronomy into a data-sharing discipline embracing crowdsourcing. I loved this story: More than 270,000 people have signed up to classify galaxies so far [on Galaxy Zoo]. One of them is Hanny van Arkel, a schoolteacher in Holland, who found out about the site after her favorite musician, Brian May, guitarist for the rock group Queen, wrote about it on his blog. After clicking around on Galaxy Zoo for a while one summer, she landed on an image with what she describes as a "very bright blue spot" on it. "I read the tutorial and there was nothing about a blue spot," she says, so she posted a note to the site's forums. "I was just really wondering, What is this?" Her curiosity paid off. Scientists now believe the spot is a highly unusual gas cloud that could help explain the life cycle of quasars. The Hubble telescope was recently pointed at the object, now nicknamed "Hanny's Voorwerp," the Dutch word for object. Astronomers have published papers about the discovery, listing Ms. van Arkel as a co-author. "Don't ask me to explain them to you, but I am a co-author of them," she says with a laugh. Szalay will be at Science Foo Camp this year, and I can't wait to meet him. (via Penny Carnaby)

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